The number of deaths by suicide in La Plata County has fallen in recent years, giving hope that preventive efforts are working.
This year, eight residents have died by suicide in La Plata County, down from 13 deaths in 2018 and 19 in 2017, according to data from the state health department and county coroner.
Although the lower number of deaths is not yet evidence of a trend, it does show community suicide prevention efforts are working, said Breeah Kinsella, director of Celebrating Healthy Communities.
“Watching the numbers drop, that’s hopeful,” said Kinsella, a member of La Plata County Suicide Prevention Collaborative. The collaborative is supported by San Juan Basin Public Health and Celebrating Healthy Communities and involves nonprofits, churches, health care providers and emergency responders.
Prevention efforts have made significant progress since 2017, when about 700 people attended a summit about suicide prevention after several teenagers died by suicide, she said.
At the summit, community members voiced concern about insufficient resources, a dearth of prevention efforts and a lack of community conversation about the problem, she said.
New prevention efforts by school districts, health care providers, community groups and others have bolstered overall awareness about suicide, how to talk about it and how to intervene in a crisis, she said.
“People aren’t feeling so alone in it. It’s not so much about a terrifying situation that we can’t do anything about,” she said.
The community groups have worked hard to foster connections between adults and youths, which is shown to be one of the most effective steps to help prevent problem behaviors.
For example, the La Plata County Boys & Girls Club, Rainbow Youth Center, Southwest Rainbow Youth Center, La Plata Youth Services and others have focused on involving young people to help shape the services they need, she said.
Youths’ involvement helps communicate to teens that they are trusted partners, she said.
But the need for suicide prevention persists locally and across the nation.
Expanding behavioral healthThe recently released Mercy Regional Medical Center Community Health Needs Assessment identified improved mental health services and reduced suicide rate as the No. 1 priority for the community.
“We are seeing youth suicides on the rise, and we haven’t seen that before,” said Elsa Inman with the hospital transformation program.
The rate of suicide deaths among young people also is on the rise nationally. The suicide rate among those 10 to 24 years old has increased 56%, from 6.8 deaths per 100,000 people to 10.6 deaths per 100,000 in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To tackle the problem, Mercy Regional Medical Center hired behavioral health providers to work in four primary care clinics, Inman said.
Pediatric Partners of the Southwest also expanded its behavioral health services and started offering services in Bayfield, which has helped support teens in the eastern part of the county, said Bruce Evans, chief of the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District and a member of the suicide prevention collaborative.
“They have been the real heroes out of this whole thing,” he said.
Educating youths, adultsDr. Heidi McMillan, with Pediatric Partners, said the practice of integrated behavioral health has coincided with a decrease in the number of patients in crisis, including suicidal crisis.
Two years ago, Pediatric Partners had about 140 patients in crisis or impending crisis; now, the office has about 70, she said.
“This is still a staggering number, however,” she said in an email.
The practice is not a crisis center, but it does assess mental health needs and usually connects patients to other care, she said.
In the future, she would like to see the community add mental health care for teens, she said.
“There is a substantial gap in our community with regard to mental health resources for the most impacted youth, who then need to get care in Denver, Grand Junction or Colorado Springs,” she said.
Some of the changes at Pediatric Partners were inspired by the feedback from Rhonda Ledford, whose teenage son, Cody Ledford, died by suicide in 2017 and was a Pediatric Partners patient, Ledford said.
When Ledford took Cody to an appointment at Pediatric Partners when he was struggling with depression and a concussion. She left the office with a packet of information about the concussion and nothing about suicide. The primary care practice is now much more proactive about suicide prevention, she said.
“Cody was such a catalyst for change,” she said.
Evans and Ledford also are working on suicide prevention as members of the collaborative.
Other effortsEvans has seen the need for prevention because his employees regularly work with people in crisis and have driven some teens to the Front Range for care, he said. Those experiences and others have led Evans and his team to commit to prevention efforts, he said.
“We jumped into this with both feet to try to stop it,” he said.
For example, fire district employees have distributed gun locks and suicide prevention information to gun dealers as part of the Gun Shop Project, he said. The project aims to educate gun dealers about how to avoid selling a firearm to a suicidal person.
To help prevent suicide among adults, Evans would like to see better medical insurance options for those in need of long-term mental health treatment, he said.
“Psychotherapy is expensive and long-term,” he said.
As a collaborative member, Ledford recently took over efforts to increase support for those bereaved by suicide.
“I know where they are coming from. Having walked the walk, I can talk the talk,” she said.
She wants to ensure that information first responders distributed to families who are bereaved by suicide lists counselors who are accepting patients, she said. She also wants to ensure the bereaved are connected with active support groups.
The bereaved are welcome to contact Ledford through The CODY Project Facebook page. The project – Communities Overcoming Depressed Youth – was founded in honor of Ledford’s son.
The suicide prevention collaborative also works with other nonprofits and groups to address food insecurity, affordable housing and wage insecurity, which can contribute to suicide.
“To not address these is throwing Band-Aids at a problem, and we won’t fix it,” she said.