Experts stress the importance of continuing to provide services and supports to individuals in crisis
(Salt Lake City) A new report from the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) shows the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on Utahns’ mental and behavioral health. While the long term consequences of the pandemic will take time to understand, preliminary data shows no significant increases in suicides, mental distress, or drug overdoses thus far. Public health experts believe the state’s existing mental health and substance use resources may be an integral reason why suicides and drug overdoses have not increased.
“The pandemic has impacted Utahns in significant ways, yet this report shows Utahns are resilient,” said Gov. Spencer Cox. “Despite these difficult times, there is hope. We are not powerless to the difficult circumstances around us. I encourage all Utahns to continue to lift each other up and provide the support we all need during these challenging times.”
The report shows deaths from drug overdoses remained stable throughout the first 39 weeks of 2020, were consistent with drug overdose death counts in 2019, and were lower than drug overdose death deaths in 2018.
“Years of statewide overdose prevention efforts have led to significant declines in opioid overdose death rates since 2016. It’s clear the efforts of prevention experts, policy makers, healthcare providers, state and local government officials, and every day citizens have helped us adapt and continue providing services to those in crisis,” said Cox.
In addition, preliminary data show the overall trend of suicide ideation and suicide attempts have remained stable in Utah. The number of suicide deaths did not increase in the first 39 weeks of 2020 (the latest data available); the number of suicide deaths in Utah is consistent with the previous three years. “We have seen modestly declining suicide rates in Utah since 2017-18, despite suicide rates continuing to rise across the country. And, fortunately, the pandemic doesn’t appear to have impacted our progress,” said Amy Mikkelsen, suicide prevention coordinator at the UDOH.
The full report can be downloaded at https://coronavirus.utah.gov/Mental-health/. Other key findings from the report:
- The number of drug overdoses reported to emergency departments remained stable through the first 50 weeks of 2020.
- Syringe service utilization increased in the first eight months of 2020 (compared to 2019), but this increase is likely due to expansion of services across the state. Syringe services are an essential service that continues to be used during the pandemic.
- There was no significant difference in the rate of Utah adults reporting frequent mental distress from March through August of 2019 compared with the same time period in 2020 (13.5% and 13.4%, respectively).
- Calls to the Suicide Prevention CrisisLine increased throughout the first 10 months of 2020, but this growth is similar to increases in previous years.
- While there isn’t information available on an increased volume of domestic violence related calls on a statewide level, anecdotal evidence from local law enforcement and victim service agencies seem to indicate an escalation of family violence.
“This data suggests that interventions and treatment during the pandemic have remained as effective as in previous years, even in the face of a sudden shift to primarily telehealth and services,” said Kimberly Myers, assistant director of the Utah Department of Human Services Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. “If you are struggling, get help. It’s safe to go to your doctor, urgent care, primary care provider, pharmacist, and therapist. Nearly every health care provider has the ability to meet with patients virtually.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) is the week of the epidemiologic year assigned by the reporting local or state health department for the purposes of MMWR disease incidence reporting and publishing. Much of the data in the report is presented by MMWR week. Specifically, the data was analyzed in the following time periods:
- MMWR Weeks 1-12: Pre-COVID-19 Interventions (December 29, 2019—March 21, 2020) – this time period was prior to Utah specific closures and directives
- MMWR Weeks 12-36: COVID-19 Interventions (March 22, 2020—September 5, 2020) – this time period was when Utah specific closures and directives were issued, including the “Stay Safe Stay Home” directive
- MMWR Weeks 37-50: COVID-19 Surge (September 6,2020—December 12, 2020) – this was the time period of several surges in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths leading to increased interventions
“We are fortunate to have a robust data system in place to monitor trends in social and behavioral health outcomes,” noted Michael Staley, suicide prevention research coordinator with the UDOH Office of the Medical Examiner. “We must remain vigilant. We are still in the midst of a pandemic and there is work for every Utahn ahead. As much as we are relieved that suicides and overdoses have not increased yet, suicide rates remain high. Experts predict that the impact of the pandemic can occur much later, after the pandemic ends. We must continue to strengthen the prevention infrastructure and work together to end suicide.”
If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide or crisis, help is available. Reach out and talk to a professional at the Utah Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. The Live On campaign also provides resources and help for those struggling with suicidal thoughts, behaviors, or loss at https://liveonutah.org/.
A list of mental health and substance use resources and providers can be found by contacting your insurance provider or visiting https://dsamh.utah.gov/contact/location-map.
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Jenny Johnson, Utah Department of Health