Q&A: Rep. Candice Pierucci on the mental health crisis afflicting Utah’s youth

Rep. Candice Pierucci of District 52 was selected by Salt Lake County Republican delegates in October to fill the seat previously held by Rep. John Knotwell. She was then formally appointed by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. At 27, she is youngest legislator in the state.

Her status as the youngest legislator in Utah has not be disconnected from her policy focus thus far. As a member of the House Health and Human Services Committee, Rep. Pierucci has zeroed in on the mental health crisis afflicting Utah’s youth population. It’s an issue that has been acutely felt in her district. I caught up with Rep. Pierucci recently to discuss her ideas for improving mental health outcomes and how mental health challenges tend to manifest both online and off. 

 

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Michael Goldberg: Can you talk about health related legislation you’re working on this session? 

Rep. Candice Pierucci: What we as a committee are working on, and what’s been big for us, is mental health. We’ve had a lot of bills about mental health come forward, particularly Rep. Eliason’s bill, that has dealt with crisis centers and has ties with criminal justice reform. We’re really taking a hard look at how we deal with mental health in our state and what we can do to approve upon that. And interestingly, I also serve on the Higher Education Appropriations Committee and a lot of their request and RFAs that we’re getting from the university is about mental health. So this is something you can tell is impacting Utah across the board that we need to work on.”

MG: I recently spoke with Rep. Judkins who pointed me to statistics which show that on average, two Utahns die as a result of suicide every day and 13 Utahns are treated for suicide attempts every day.

CP: It’s also the number one cause of death for our youth.”

MG: I’m curious if you can identify any factors unique to Utah that make it challenging to deal with this issue?

CP: I really like to be data driven so this is me speaking anecdotally. My district covers Herriman and Herriman High had a year where they had five suicides. In research you refer to this as a “suicide cluster.” I’m the youngest legislator in Utah and I served on Hope Squad when I was a senior in high school. It’s a student led organization trying to identify those people who need friends. As I’ve talked to youth in my district, there are a few things that again, just from qualitative, anecdotal discussions I’ve had with constituents, that I’ve picked up on. A lot of them have talked about loneliness. Unfortunately, I think social media is a contributing factor. You could be friends with thousands of people online but potentially lack those interpersonal skills or even the opportunities to have those relationships offline. Additionally, people only put their best filtered self out on social media; and the comparison game we see as a result is really harmful. 

I think what’s interesting about this is that it hits rich and poor, old and young; it doesn’t discriminate. For those individuals I talked to, they’re often high performing individuals who feel immense pressure to succeed. I think this national discussion that we’re also grappling with in Utah involves talking about mental health and removing the stigma. I think that’s really important. If you had a high blood pressure, why would you not take your blood pressure pills. For some reason, that hasn’t clicked for people. We’ve seen an uptick in anxiety and depression and I think we need to address those issues early on by teaching skills to help manage. Teachers have even said we really need to start as early as elementary school in dealing with this.” 

MG: With suicide and other “deaths of despair” as they’re called, research has found that a lack of civic engagement and community ties is often present in these cases. But Utah, of course, has a significant number of residents who are involved with the Church and one would think in that capacity they develop closer ties within their communities. If Utahns are more active and engaged in their communities, do you think Utah is better positioned to deal with this issue than other states? 

CP: I think you identified the unique network of opportunities to where what normally might take a state longer, because they don’t have those built in community networks and the fabric to tap into, we have the ability to address head on. I really do admire Rep. Eliason’s work on this. I think that’s something that gets down into our congregations, regardless of your faith affiliation. It gets down into our schools and neighborhoods. I think that’s what it’s going to take, quite frankly, for this conversation to start seeing results. I have been impressed that this is something that we address not only in government, but in the private sector and nonprofit sector. The Riverton Intermountain Hospital, they provide free suicide prevention courses for the community. They also provide free gun locks, they make resources available at each of the libraries in Salt Lake County to make it more accessible rather than have to go into a hospital to get it. 

I just met with a constituent who’s son was the first suicide at Herriman High, and she said ‘I had no idea, I had no idea what to be looking for.’ It caught her completely off guard. But I do think we have a community that is tightly knit and has the resources to do this.”