A report from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office shows that disconnection from caring adults, social media use and exclusion from extracurricular activities, among many other factors, are contributing to the risk of youth suicide in La Plata County.
The county also does not have enough resources, such as funding, to effectively implement prevention and intervention to youth suicide and responses to deaths by suicide, according to the report released last week.
Attorney General Cynthia Coffman’s office funded the $173,000 study that examined trends and patterns in suicidal behaviors among young people in El Paso, La Plata, Mesa and Pueblo counties. Researchers gained information based on focus groups and interviews.
“It gives us the story of our community, as the community sees it,” said Breeah Kinsella, director of Celebrating Healthy Communities, a Durango-based nonprofit focused on promoting healthy lifestyles among teens.
The four counties were selected for the study because they experienced suicide clusters among teenagers and have historically high suicide rates.
“Devastation, shock, confusion, paralysis, exhaustion (and) urgency,” were some of the words focus group members used to describe the profound effects deaths by suicide have had on communities, according to the report.
Youth suicide is a problem that has been on the rise in Colorado and nationally. From 2015 through 2017 in Colorado, there were 222 suicide deaths among 10- to 18-years-olds, the report said.
The study was also inspired by the rise in students reporting threats of suicide to Safe2Tell, a statewide anonymous hotline overseen by the Attorney General’s Office that students can use to report concerns about their safety or the safety of others.
Health Management Associates was contracted to complete the study. It held focus groups with adults and teenagers in each community, including six in La Plata County. The report also relied on interviews with representatives from public health, behavioral health, schools and youth-serving organizations in each community.
In La Plata County, it was nearly impossible to identify focus group participants who had not been directly affected by a suicide, according to the report.
“It shines a light on something we have been dealing with in the community and schools for a long time,” Bayfield School District Superintendent Kevin Aten said.
Risk factorsAll four communities shared many risk factors that can contribute to suicide, such as substance abuse, depression and anxiety, and a history of trauma. It also called out the need for greater connection between teens and adults and the extensive amount of time teens spend on social media, which can limit their face-to-face interactions with others.
“The findings reinforce the notion that suicide is not just a mental health issue. It’s a community-wide concern that needs support and leadership from a variety of professionals, agencies and organizations, parents, youth and elected officials,” said Durango School District 9-R Deputy Superintendent Andy Burns, in an email to The Durango Herald.
Teens in all the communities said they wanted to have more authentic relationships and conversations with adults, according to the report. Young people reported that the adults’ response to suicides is inadequate.
“(Young people) sense that adults are fearful of saying the wrong thing and, unfortunately, this leads to no conversation about suicide at all, or an intense reaction where conversations feel like an inquisition of one’s potential suicidality,” the report stated.
Teens said they wished adults could be with them in their pain without jumping to assessments or solutions, the report stated.
Strong relationships between young people and adults are key to suicide prevention, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, knowing how to build those relationships is a skill both teens and adults have to practice and develop, Kinsella said.
Celebrating Healthy Communities and San Juan Basin Public Health have held trainings to help teens and adults develop some of those skills. They expect to hold more trainings in the coming year, she said. Celebrating Healthy Communities works with adults who work with teenagers professionally, as well as members of the general public, she said.
[Image:4,mugshot]Durango School District 9-R staff has been attending trainings to better understand youths and challenges they face to help foster healthy relationships between staff and students, Burns said.
“Understanding our students and their background is a key component to establishing healthy and effective relationships with trusted adults. The study finds merit in strong youth-adult connections, and we (are) trying to enhance those relationships around our district,” he said.
For example, trainings have focused on tolerance and understanding of LGBTQ topics and cultural awareness about the district’s Latino and Native American populations, he said.
Schools in Durango, Bayfield and Ignacio have started a suicide-prevention program called Sources of Strength. Through the program, students develop their own campaigns to encourage connections between teens and adults, among other healthy behaviors.
The program is doing well in Bayfield, and the district plans to expand it from the high school to the middle school, Aten said.
“You’re building up the community based on the strengths of the kids with the kids. ... You’re not going out and buying a program off the shelf,” he said.
A lack of access to extracurricular activities such as sports and band among students without financial means to participate or who are geographically removed is also a problem across all communities, according to the report.
[Image:3,mugshot]One way to address the problem is to ensure those organizing youth activities consider how to involve students who may face financial barriers to participation, said Laura Warner, director of health promotion services with San Juan Basin Public Health.
“It’s going to take lots and lots of people thinking through how to reach those that are unreached,” she said.
For example, a mountain bike team could provide free bikes for those who can’t otherwise participate, she said.
The report also found that suicide among adults may be contributing to the problem because it creates the perception among teens that suicide is a normal behavior, according to the report.
Suicide-prevention challengesAll four counties lack the resources to effectively implement youth suicide-prevention and intervention activities, according to the report.
The communities do not have enough mental health providers that accept Medicaid, work specifically with teenagers and have training and experience working with suicidal individuals, the report said. They also do not have enough funding for public health and social service programs.
Ignacio School District Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto said he largely agreed with the findings of the report, and he was concerned about the lack of professional support to help with students’ mental health.
“My counselors do a great job up to a certain point. After that point, we need more professionals to handle the tough situations,” he said.
Part of the problem in La Plata County has been a lack of coordination among organizations that work on suicide prevention, but that is changing, Warner said.
Kinsella said there are probably enough resources to effectively prevent suicide in the community, but they perhaps have been overlooked. For example, the Boys and Girls clubs in La Plata County provide opportunities for teens to form relationships and participate in healthy activities away from substances, which can prevent all kinds of risky behaviors, including thoughts of suicide, she said.
Community members can also participate in suicide prevention by building meaningful relationships or by participating in a suicide-intervention training, Warner said.
“There are things that people can do right now to increase the connectedness that we have in our community and therefore prevent suicide,” Warner said.
Additional funding for suicide prevention could be forthcoming in La Plata County because it is one of six Colorado counties selected to participate in a suicide-prevention effort with state and national organizations, Warner said.
The goal of the Colorado-National Collaborative is to create a suicide-prevention model to reduce suicide 20 percent statewide by 2024.
The collaborative plans to apply for funding that could be distributed among state, federal and county partners, she said.