Reeling from a string of recent deaths, a coalition of local health advocates, school representatives and others gathered Wednesday night to start taking action on the longstanding issue of suicides in La Plata County.
“It’s not a conversation anymore,” said Jackie Oros, chief of student support services for Durango School District 9-R. “Now, it is work. We can keep talking about it, but what we really need now is action, as a community.”
La Plata County for the past few years has consistently ranked among the highest rates of suicides, with about 12 to 14 suicide deaths per 100,000 residents, said Peter Tregillus, with Southern Ute Community Action Programs.
In 2016, there were 15 suicides in the county, and eight in 2015. Already in 2017, two men in separate incidents were found dead from self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
Dan Snowberger, superintendent for 9-R, said among those deaths are four people over the past two years affiliated with the school district, most recently a Park Elementary School teacher and a Miller Middle School student.
Snowberger, too, told the working group, which met at Durango High School’s library, that the time has come for the community to address the issue head on.
“We’ve really been in this mode of, ‘lets grieve,’ and once we’re ready to have that conversation about how to respond proactively, another person takes their life,” Snowberger said. “This has to be the beginning of that conversation.”
All in attendance were in agreement Wednesday’s meeting was the first step to organize and properly coordinate how to best utilize the many resources in the community to approach the myriad issues surrounding suicide.
“This is not a school issue, this is a community issue,” said Oros. “And we really need the coordination of all the agencies in this community. … We’ve been operating in silos.”
Oros said 9-R has been able to bring counselors to schools, build mentorships through La Plata Youth Services, and begin a curriculum in the classroom that deal with suicide. But there’s still far more to do, she said.
Emily Kassay, a teacher at Riverview Elementary, said there’s only one counselor to the school’s more than 500 enrolled students, an inadequate ratio as children realize the need for mental health care.
“Our counselor is being stretched so incredibly thin,” Kassay said. “There’s a shift that is happening in our building that is not being appropriately met. And it’s not just our building, it’s our community – we need more specialists.”
Cito Nuhn, principal at Miller Middle School, said it’s also beholden on the teachers to better identify at-risk students. But that requires proper training, he said, evidenced by a recent meeting discussing the issue.
“We realized we had some adult learning to do,” Nuhn said. “We weren’t ready to just jump in.”
Samantha Tower, assistant principal at Animas Valley Elementary, stressed how difficult it can be to identify at-risk students, but how important it is to reach out to children at an early age.
“We need to find the kids who are quiet, come to school and get their work done, but have a lot going on,” Tower said. “There are students desperately in need of mental health support, but just aren’t the kids that stand out in a school environment.”
Attendees also discussed at length issues surrounding individuals outside a school setting with thoughts of taking their lives.
Judy Austin, with the Grief Center of Southwest Colorado, said one proactive approach would be offering support to those who just suffered a loss, a vulnerable situation in which one may consider suicide.
“How do we make that grief piece become part of the preventative piece?” she said.
And Tregillus said the gatekeeper program through SUCAP helps assist suicidal people find the help they need.
While it’s going to be a long, uphill battle, Snowberger said Wednesday night was the first of many meetings to start preventing suicides. The first step was to get a range of community members representing local agencies together and begin organizing, which was accomplished Wednesday, he said.