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Utah County Sheriff’s Office reports uptick in suicides during 2020

(A drawing hangs along with other messages of hope and remembrance as part of Suicide Prevention Day at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

UTAH COUNTY – State officials say the number of suicides across the state remained relatively steady in 2020, despite the global pandemic and its impact on mental health.  However, officials with the Utah County Sheriff’s Office says they’ve noticed a dramatic spike in the number of people who took their own lives last year.

The sheriff’s office is, in no way, refuting or even questioning the findings released by the Utah Department of Health.  Analysts say there are several reasons why the data from two different agencies may not match, even though neither data set is wrong.

Sergeant Spencer Cannon says it felt like their deputies had been investigating more deaths by suicide over the last 12 months.  So, he looked over the data from 2010 to 2019 to see if that was true.  He tells KSL the average number of suicide investigations over the last decade was 12 per year.  However, he says there was a dramatic jump in 2020.

Cannon says, “By the end of the year of 2020, we had investigated 32 deaths by suicide.”

The department has not conducted any kind of scientific review of these cases, so they can’t be certain why there was a spike. 

“We don’t know why that increase is there.  Certainly, we have to ask ourselves the question if it may be related to the pressures of the pandemic, but, we don’t know that,” according to Cannon.

Why the discrepancy between Utah County and the state’s numbers?  Officials from UDOH issued a statement saying the Medical Examiner’s Office only reviews cases that involve a fatality, while law enforcement investigates many cases that don’t.

The statement reads, in part, “While law enforcement and the medical examiner respond in tandem to fatal events, there is no formal reconciliation between our records. A death may be originally investigated as a suicide, and therefore, remain a suicide in law enforcement records. The medical examiner may discover additional evidence to suggest that the death was an accident or some other manner. There is no formal process by which the law enforcement record would be updated to match the medical examiner record.”

However, UDOH acknowledges the number of suicides has gone up in Utah County, just as it has all across the state.  The statement says Utah County saw an increase in 2020 which was lower than the increase between the two previous years, acknowledging that one suicide is too many.

Cannon says the county wants to learn what the main driving factor is behind the spike.

“We’d like to know because there are a lot of prevention resources out there,” he says.

The department is in the very early planning stages of a suicide prevention campaign that can reach out to people who are in despair.  Cannon says there are certain remote locations within the county that may be attractive to people considering suicide.

Cannon says, “Hopefully, we can put up some signs in areas where we have seen people who are in despair, for whatever reason, go to consider taking their life.”

Anyone going through depression or feeling suicidal thoughts needs to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.