44 children took their own lives last year; Utah’s governor calls it an emergency

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah Governor Gary Herbert has convened a task force to address the state's youth suicides, which have dramatically surged in recent years.

"Even one is too many," the governor said at a news conference Wednesday. "We're to that point where we say this is an emergency."

Gov. Gary Herbert announces the formation of a teen suicide prevention task force on Jan. 17, 2018. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Reacting to the deaths of 44 people ages 10-to-17 last year, and jaw-dropping figures that show Utah has a 141% higher youth suicide rate than the national average, Gov. Herbert said action must be taken and quickly. He convened a task force of 14 members led by his Lt. Governor, Spencer Cox, and Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who has championed suicide prevention in the Utah State Legislature.

"We have lost far too many lives leading up to this present day," Rep. Eliason said.

For Lt. Governor Cox, the issue was also personal. He said people need to break the stigma of silence around suicide, and shared his own childhood story of suicidal thoughts.

"I went through some dark times, some times that were very difficult," he said, fighting back tears. "I was bullied as well.  Those things impact us. I started to have those dark thoughts about the world might be a better place if I was not in it. Fortunately, I did not follow through on those thoughts. I assumed I was alone in that, that there was something wrong with me for having those thoughts."

The task force includes political and community leaders, suicide prevention groups, medical professionals and even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the gay rights group Equality Utah.

"LGBT youth are four times more likely to experience suicide ideation than their straight counterparts. Eight times more likely to experience suicide ideation, if they’re kicked out of their homes," said Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams. "I think it’s really powerful the state is coming together, to address this issue."

Elder Ronald A. Rasband, a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said they were committed to doing what they can to help.

Gail Miller, the owner of the Utah Jazz, has advocated for anti-bullying initiatives in schools. She called for more to be done in homes and schools.

"Every child deserves a non-threatening environment where they feel like they belong," she said.

Rep. Eliason pleaded with parents to love and accept their children. He also urged firearms owners to take preventive steps to ensure their guns have locks on them.

"One of the most important things you can do today to dramatically reduce the risk of your child dying by suicide is to lock and restrict your firearms in your home from unauthorized use," he said.

Beyond talking about the problem, Gov. Herbert was adamant that he wanted action. He announced the task force must submit a plan to him and the Utah State Legislature by Feb. 15. The deadline, mid-session, would ensure they could run bills if need be and secure funding for suicide prevention plans.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available 24/7 by calling 1-800-273-TALK. Utahns can also visit Hope4Utah and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center for additional resources. You can also download the SafeUT app for instant, confidential crisis services.