Gov. Spencer Cox signed a series of measures this week aimed at addressing the state’s ongoing mental health crisis.
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Utah maintains the highest levels of mental illness in the country, with more than 30% of adult Utahns experiencing anxiety or depression. A survey on maternal health showed more than half of new mothers in Utah reported depression before, during, or after pregnancy in 2021.
According to the Utah Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Utah’s suicide rate hovered around 20 per 100,000 since 2015, compared to the national rate of 14.2 during a similar time period–a very high rate, which is also true in other Rocky Mountain states.
Each year, 40 youths die from suicide and nearly 2,000 wind up in emergency rooms to be treated for a mental health crisis in Utah. The state has witnessed a 300% increase in pediatric mental health crisis visits to emergency departments over the last decade.
To respond to those levels, Cox signed House Bill 66, an amendment to the state’s Behavioral Health Crisis Response Commission that will fund a new crisis receiving center in Cache County along with two additional mobile crisis outreach teams (MCOT) to be deployed to areas of high need.
In an interview with State of Reform, the bill’s sponsor Rep. Steve Eliason (R- Sandy) spoke to the progress made this session on mental health.
“[HB 66] was an important installment on our redesign of crisis services in the state with the three key pillars of someone to call, someone to respond, and a safe place to go,” Eliason said. “We’ve done a pretty good job of funding 988 and the Utah warmline as well as Safe UT, which is another method of communication in terms of crisis access. And then ‘someone to respond’ are the MCOT teams, which are working very well in the state. We just need more of them.”
Eliason said with the addition of the crisis receiving center in Cache County, the state will expand services to more counties.
Eliason also co-sponsored Senate Bill 269, which requires DHHS to apply for a Medicaid waiver to support individuals with chronic health conditions. According to Eliason, the waiver will allow people with chronic conditions—particularly in rural Utah—to benefit from remote healthcare services and monitoring to improve the quality of care.
HB 403 will require a local education agency to either opt in or opt out of conducting mental health screenings for its students, a program Eliason passed years earlier. Eliason said HB 403 was a reminder to schools that student mental health is a critical issue and funds are available to take advantage of.
“[HB 323 from 2020] put the process in place whereby school districts can do the screening with written parental consent, that’s always a key component,” Eliason said. “The [majority] of districts have done it. The funding that’s attached to the bill helps pay for the cost of the screenings, but more importantly, if a child for whatever reason is unable—their family is unable—to pay for services, if it’s ultimately recommended that that child get the additional services after the screening, there’s a pool of funds available to help get that child services.”
Access to mental health professionals in Utah remains another critical factor. All of the state’s 29 counties are experiencing a shortage of mental health professionals, according to DHHS.
HB 159 allows professionals holding a healthcare license from a different state to provide telemedicine services to Utahns. Meanwhile, HB 166, which would amend the Mental Health Professional Practice Act to allow out-of-state license holders to remotely provide mental health therapy and substance use disorder counseling through telehealth, awaits the governor’s signature.