High school and middle school students in Durango School District 9-R will be screened for suicide risk factors as the community seeks to bolster prevention efforts. This week, the issue rose to the forefront again with news of the town’s 18th suicide.
San Juan Basin Public Health and the school district are ramping up strategies to address the problem, but it’s hard for local professionals to say why it’s such a pervasive issue across age groups.
“The challenge is that there is not one reason,” said Sean Evans, coordinator of health services for the school district.
Most cases involve some aspect of mental illness, and those who die by suicide generally have an undiagnosed illness, said Susan Becker, professor of psychology at Colorado Mesa University.
But many other factors can be at play in addition to mental health, said Claire Ninde, spokeswoman for the health department.
The upcoming suicide-risk screenings could be scheduled in December or January for students at Durango High School, Big Picture High School and Escalante Middle School. Screenings at Miller Middle School were completed a month ago.
They will help staff understand students’ level of self-image and self-confidence, said Jackie Oros, chief student services officer.
“It gives us a really good baseline for how kids perceive themselves,” she said.
Axis Health System will help with the eight-question screenings that ask students if they perceive themselves to have friends and whether they think about the future or plan for the future.
Those identified as at-risk for suicide will be connected with counselors and resources inside and outside of school, Evans said.
The district has conducted screenings intermittently in the past, spokeswoman Julie Popp said.
San Juan Basin Public Health has partnered with the Durango School District on several efforts, including a Let’s Talk campaign, Mental Health First Aid training for teachers and the Safe2Tell hotline that allows students to anonymously report threats of suicide, bullying and other concerning behavior.
Safe2Tell tips about threats of suicide have climbed steadily in the last five school years from six in 2012-13 to 31 in 2016-17.
The district is also increasing the number of Mental Health First Aid trainings offered to staff, and it recently trained two employees to give the trainings.
In July, the health department launched its Let’s Talk campaign to help break down the stigma of talking about mental illness.
The department’s goal is to saturate the community with messages encouraging residents to talk more openly about mental illness and to increase the community’s awareness of mental health resources, Ninde said.
As part of a communitywide response, the health department is offering brief suicide-intervention trainings for interested groups, with trainers available in La Plata, San Juan and Archuleta counties, Ninde said.
The department’s long-term goal is to create a consistent communitywide response that would follow each suicide. Ninde is forming a work group with representatives from different sectors that will create that consistent response.
The department plans to form more work groups to address suicide prevention and awareness, but that will likely take time, she said.
“Things move more slowly when it’s a huge collaboration like this,” Ninde said.