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SALT LAKE CITY — When a police officer shot and wounded a man in an apparent suicide attempt last year, Salt Lake City officials were initially criticized for not using the tragedy to help raise money for a suicide prevention program.
The shooting of 27-year-old Christopher Lee in December 2013 had no obvious link to Utah’s suicide problem. The man had a long history of psychiatric care and had a history of violence, but his actions did not seem suicidal. He had mental health issues and had just spent a year in jail for robbing a convenience store.
“I think the city is really, really disappointed that nobody stepped up and thought about this issue,” said Jim Miller, chief of police in the city at the time of the shooting and a suicide prevention coordinator. “If they stepped up, the city could’ve raised money.”
Now, as one of the nation’s suicide prevention experts and a Salt Lake City police officer, Miller is working to reverse a slide in recent years in which nearly 3,500 people died by suicide from 2000 to 2015 — one of the worst periods since 1970.
That’s because state suicide reporting rules allow for only a small percent of suicides to be counted in official national statistics and are likely not complete about what’s behind the steep decline. Suicide is more prevalent for people between ages 15 and 44, and is more often a black or Latino problem than a white or Asian one; for people who are poor, disabled or mentally ill; and for men, people with a history of violence and people with other mental-health histories.
In Utah and in a majority of states, suicides are not counted in official statistics — for people 16 and older. Utah has long done a good job of monitoring suicides and making sure they are counted, Miller said, while also getting more information on what is causing it in a timely manner. This month Utah lawmakers passed a new initiative this year requiring state agencies to identify what constitutes a suicide and get the word out.
“I think it’s a big deal,” said John Koppa, director of the state Division of Public Health’s suicide prevention branch. “We knew there were problems in our state … but we also knew there would be a push from the business community on how to improve our suicide prevention.”
With the help of some local mental-health health advocates and a few federal dollars, Utah became the state that reported the fewest suicides in the U.S. this year —
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