Bill Designating 988 as National Suicide Lifeline Number Has Contributions from Political Science Alum Ryan Leavitt

“Suicide across the nation has become an epidemic, especially with young people,” says Ryan Leavitt (BA ’11), partner at Barker Leavitt and BYU political science alumnus. He served as a lead staffer for the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018, which led to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ultimately designating the phone number ‘988’ as a connection to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Crisis Center. 

By July 16, 2022, all calls made to the number ‘988’ will be directed to the national crisis center. In Utah, you can already call this number and be directed to lifesaving resources. 

“Right now if someone experiencing a mental health emergency needs assistance, the lifeline number they dial to get help is really long. People who are having a hard time are not going to know where to get help,” says Leavitt. “The idea is to have a simple three-digit number like you have for life-threatening emergencies (911) that everyone knows.”

Because the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number isn’t easily remembered, people end up calling 911 instead and then, according to Leavitt, “We are directing resources inefficiently.”

Utah has the fifth-highest suicide rate in the nation and suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control. The state of Utah was in desperate need of more streamlined resources before this bill was proposed. 

Leavitt worked under the direction of former Senator Orrin Hatch and Congressman Chris Stewart, who authored the bill requiring the FCC to change the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline from 1-800-273-TALK to 988.

Leavitt is currently a partner at a Government Affairs and Political Consulting Law Firm in Washington, D.C. and he attributes a large part of his early career success to his educational opportunities starting with his undergraduate education at Brigham Young University. Leavitt earned a degree in political science in 2011. He took full advantage of internship opportunities throughout his undergraduate career, participating in the Washington Seminar and interning with the Utah State Legislature.

Over nearly a decade serving as a Congressional aide, Leavitt advised several of Utah’s Members of Congress, including Senator Orrin Hatch, Senator Mike Lee, and Congressman John Curtis among others. Utah State Senator Daniel Thatcher and Utah House Representative Steve Eliason had begun advocating in the Utah State Legislature to designate a three-digit number as the suicide prevention hotline number in Utah. The Utah senators then solicited the help of Senator Hatch and Congressman Stewart to expand their proposal nationally.

Leavitt describes the bill as a “great hope” for those struggling with mental health.

To get help in Utah, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. There is also a crisis text line. 988 is not currently active throughout all the states in the U.S. and 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is still in use. 

If you’re looking for resources other than a hotline, please consider the following: BYU CAPS (for students), the SafeUT app, and webinars from The Hope Squad.

New Director and Department Chairs Announced

The College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences announced a new director for the School of Family Life and four new department chairs last week.

Erin Holmes will serve as director of the School of Family Life, Curtis Child will serve as department chair of the sociology, Lars Lefgren as department chair of economics, Daniel Olsen as department chair of geography, and Jay Goodliffe as department chair of political science. Each has been appointed for a three-year term.

New chairs will be guided by the university’s five-year strategic objectives, which include pursuing the Inspiring Learning initiative, increasing enrollment, and promoting a sense of belonging among all members of the campus community. They will also focus on specific issues raised by members of their respective departments.

Erin Holmes will serve as Director of the School of Family Life beginning July 1. (Aislynn Edwards)

Holmes was formerly an associate director in the school and will begin her tenure as director on July 1. Dean Ben Ogles said Holmes is a good fit for the next phase of the school’s journey, which includes a commitment to diversity and inclusion and leading “out on studying and teaching about diverse families across national, ethnic, and racial groups from within a gospel perspective that emphasizes Proclamation principles,” according to an email from Ogles.

Holmes played a central role in the creation of the school’s diversity and inclusion statement and encouraged everyone in the School of Family Life to read it and approach her with ideas, concerns, and questions to help foster “unity amid diversity.” She also said she is committed to counsel from Jean B. Bingham, general president of the Relief Society, to “extend an open hand and heart” to create “a safe place for sharing, a safe place to grow, a safe place to become our best selves.”

Child, associate professor of sociology, teaches courses in economic sociology and qualitative research methods, and studies nonprofit organizations, businesses, fair trade, and the morals/markets branch of economic sociology. Under his leadership, the Sociology Department will seek to address several objectives, including becoming a source of information on current social issues. “We potentially have a big role to play and we need to figure out how to do so,” Ogles said, summarizing statements by faculty members.

Child said he is excited to work with talented faculty in his department. “I feel like part of my role, a big part of my role, is just to help them in doing the good things they are already intending to do,” he said.

Curtis Child, Sociology (left); Lars Lefgren, Economics (center); and Daniel Olsen, Geography (right) will begin serving as department chairs this summer.

Lefgren, Camilla Eyring Kimball professor of economics, specializes in applied microeconomics, including research on the American educational system. He is a research fellow with The Institute of Labor Economics and a research associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research. He will begin his tenure July 1.

Olsen, professor of geography, who began his tenure as chair of the geography department on May 1, said he wants to make geography more visible on campus.

“A lot of people think geography is just about memorizing place names and capital cities and that sort of thing,” he said. “Geography is much more encompassing than Trivial Pursuit.”

Olsen said another one of his priorities is engaging students in the classroom through the Inspiring Learning initiative and experiential learning.

“It takes a lot of training, it takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of working together to try to inspire each of us to be a little bit better with all the things we have to do as professors,” Olsen said. He said he is humbled by and excited about the opportunity.

Jay Goodliffe will chair the political science department beginning July 1.

Goodliffe, professor of political science, will begin his tenure remotely from Washington, D.C. where he is directing the Washington Seminar program through summer term. His research interests include congressional campaigns and elections, legislative discipline, interest groups, international human rights treaties, and political methodology.

“It is humbling to be chair because previous chairs have led the department so well. Our department has outstanding students, strong staff, and wonderful faculty that are recognized in the profession for their achievements,” Goodliffe said. “I want to help our students and faculty continue to succeed and achieve even more.”

Ogles thanked the new chairs and new director for their willingness to sacrifice time and professional aspirations in order to lead their respective departments.

Ogles also gave a heartfelt thanks to the previous department chairs for their service: Alan Hawkins, who served as director of the School of Family Life for three years; Rick Miller, department chair of sociology for six years; Mark Showalter, department chair of economics for five years; Ryan Jensen, department chair of geography for nine years; and Sven Wilson, department chair of political science for seven years.

Does political party trump ideology?

It’s the political scientist’s often-asked chicken and egg: does a person’s political party or policy attitudes come first?

With party and ideology so closely intertwined, the question has in the past been nearly impossible to pin down, but BYU political science professors Michael Barber and Jeremy C. Pope found a way. The duo published a study in top-ranked American Political Science Review showing that people’s policy positions are quite malleable when told that leaders of their political party support a different position.

The key to answering their question? The election of a president who has made statements both opposing and supporting a range of controversial issues.

“With President Trump as a bit of a weathervane on certain issues, it makes it easier to discern party loyalists from policy loyalists,” Pope said.

In their research, Pope and Barber studied two different groups: party loyalists and policy loyalists. Party loyalists are those who, when informed of the party leaders’ position, willingly and quickly change their policy position to align with the party leader. Policy loyalists are those who hold to their original policy preference, despite opinions or stances of party leaders that might contradict their beliefs.

“It’s odd to think about partisanship and ideology as being disconnected,” said Barber. “Why else does a political party exist rather than to advance a particular set of policies?”

Using a representative survey of 1,300 Americans, the researchers randomly assigned respondents into control, liberal and conservative groups and asked participants about their political positions on a variety of contemporary issues. The issues they explored were ones on which Donald Trump took different positions during his presidential campaign, including abortion, immigration, guns, health care, climate change and minimum wage.

Control-group participants were asked about their opinions on issues, with no mention of Trump’s position. But Barber and Pope presented participants in the liberal group with questions such as, “Donald Trump has said that he supports increasing the minimum wage over $10. How about you? Do you support or oppose increasing the minimum wage to over $10 an hour?”

In this way, the researchers could uncover the effect of a party leader’s endorsement of a policy in both a liberal and conservative direction. President Trump is unique in that most party leaders don’t endorse policies that run counter to the dominant ideology of the party, let alone advocate for both ideological sides of an issue.

Pope and Barber found that many people in each treatment group moved to support the policy when informed that President Trump likewise supported the policy. This was true of both liberal and conservative policies. “When informed of the president’s issue position, many people willingly followed that position in either a liberal or a conservative direction,” Pope said.

Respondents who knew less about politics, those who approved of President Trump, strong Republicans and self-identified conservatives were the groups most likely to be moved by seeing an endorsement of a policy by President Trump. Surprisingly, this was true of both a liberal and conservative endorsement. In other words, despite identifying as conservative Republicans, these individuals were more likely to endorse a liberal policy when told that President Trump supported that policy.

This kind of loyal partisanship should worry political observers, said Pope and Barber. They both maintain that politics are better when they revolve around more than just the party label.

“It should be about ideas and not about winning or beating the other side,” Barber said. “Politics should be about pushing ideas and policies that you think will better the country.”

-Jayne Edwards

 

Want to stop corruption? Text voters

A new study shows texting information about political corruption can improve democratic election outcomes.

BYU political science professor Daniel Nielson teamed up with three other professors to look at elections in Uganda, which suffers a range of challenges due to economic, political and social corruption. This study was done as part of a broader project, Metaketa I, which funded six studies in five countries to investigate how disseminating information about corruption impacted voting patterns.

“I am always looking for ways to understand how corruption might be addressed,” said Nielson, whose study was recently published in top-ranked journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Helping voters to hold politicians more accountable seems a promising part of the answer to that puzzle.”

In Uganda, Nielson noted, citizens struggle to vote out corrupt politicians due to state control of media, low civic education, untrustworthy institutions and uncompetitive elections.

During the 2016 Ugandan district elections, Nielson and his co-authors worked with Twaweza, a Ugandan-based organization that promotes good governance, to send mobile phone text messages to inform 16,000 voters about suspected budget fraud by local government councils.

The team was able to contact 16,000 citizens, significantly more than is typical in such studies. They found that the impact of the text messages changed citizens’ votes between 2 and 6 percent. This data would have been difficult to detect had the team only surveyed a few thousand participants, but their wide reach provided them the statistical power to detect small changes in the population’s voting behavior.

Voters who learned that suspected fraud in the political candidates was greater than they expected were 6 percent less likely to vote for incumbents. Those that learned that fraud was less than expected were 5 percent more likely to vote for incumbents.

“We see this as a bright spot that might suggest some ways forward for other non-governmental organizations when they design public-information campaigns,” said Nielson. “Our job as researchers is to point in promising directions.”