La Plata County health experts and youth advocates, worried that the COVID-19 pandemic will negatively impact young people’s health, are focusing on connectedness as a possible solution.
Whether it is posting suicide prevention stickers or helping families pay for cellphones for their kids, local organizations are trying to support young people any way they can during the pandemic. This year, a $3.8 million statewide youth health initiative focusing on forming connections is adding a new support tool to the mix. Local groups are still deciding whether they will join the initiative, but they agree positive relationships are key to good health.
“On a broad scale, I would like to see youth feeling more empowered and connected to their community,” said Della Turque, co-chairperson of the Recognizing Opportunities Around Resilience Coalition. “And just a sense of community wellness, whatever that means to people in their community.”
The ROAR Coalition, which includes Celebrating Healthy Communities and San Juan Basin Public Health, is one of the local groups interested in joining the state initiative, called Forward Together. The campaign, meant to last three to five years, offers resources and support to help youths become connected with their peers, parents and trusted adults.
Since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in Colorado, connections have been harder to nurture. Student life screeched to a halt. School, sports, proms and graduations were canceled or postponed. The pandemic added a new source of stress and instability, and it took away systems of support for young people.
“Youth are definitely experiencing, as we all are, an increase in isolation which can lead to depression and other mental health challenges,” said Katy Pepinsky, executive director of La Plata Youth Services, which supports young people facing challenges in school, home or court. These challenges are exacerbated for marginalized youths, including youths of color, youths living in poverty and youths with disabilities, she said.
Because of the pandemic’s impacts, health professionals are concerned that depression, substance abuse and risky behaviors among youths will rise.
The Forward Together initiative and several local efforts are trying to address that concern by helping communities build healthy connections to support young people.
“COVID-19 has impacted us all profoundly, particularly our youth,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, in a news release. “It is difficult to stay connected right now. By helping youth work through those difficulties and build quality relationships, we are building a healthier Colorado.”
The state of youthsWhen it comes to mental health and substance use, La Plata County kids reported similar impacts as their peers around the state, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado survey data.
For example, in 2019, most La Plata County high school students reported the same rates of hopelessness, attempted suicide and suicidal thoughts as their peers around the state, the data showed.
Mental health among young people is already a heightened concern in La Plata County, particularly after several teenagers died by suicide in 2017. Suicide rates fell in 2018 and again in 2019.
When it comes to substance use, La Plata County high school students reported binging on alcohol, using electronic vapor products, smoking cigarettes and using marijuana at slightly higher rates than their peers statewide, according to the survey.
“When we, as a community, feel connected to the people around us, we feel like we belong. We feel a sense of ownership in our community, and we’re less likely to engage in risky behaviors,” Turque said.
But LGBTQ students reported the most serious health concerns out of all students. They were about twice as likely to stop doing their activities because of hopelessness. Almost a third attempted suicide, while 44% seriously considered it. About 13% of straight high school students considered suicide.
Fewer LGBTQ students reported having connections with trusted adults than their peers.
“If young people can’t be open about who they are to whoever, whether it be parent, teacher, counselor, doctor, etc., that affects them scientifically in every aspect of their lives,” said Trennie Collins with Southwest Rainbow Youth, which supports LGBTQ youths.
Building connections, Forward TogetherColorado’s multimillion-dollar Forward Together campaign is a change in messaging from past campaigns.
Instead of focusing on substance-specific youth media campaigns, they are focused on building connections, according to a Colorado Department of Human Services news release.
The campaign includes statewide advertisements on TV and online, which partially launched Monday. The advertisements focus on youth connectedness and raising awareness about resources, like a new resource page that helps adults build quality relationships with young people.
Both DHS and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment are leading and funding the Forward Together initiative, which is expected to last for three to five years. More than 100 young people, ages 12 to 20, from across the state helped build the campaign alongside parents and adults who work with youths.
“We believe that by addressing connectedness, which is shown through research to affect multiple health behaviors and outcomes, we can make a positive impact on the health of young people in Colorado,” the release said.
La Plata County youth support groups are still deciding whether they will join the Forward Together initiative. San Juan Basin Public Health, which is part of both the ROAR Coalition and La Plata County Suicide Prevention Collaborative, said the groups are reviewing the initiative and whether it fits with their local strategies to support youths.
Forward in La Plata CountyIn the past few years, school districts, health care providers, community groups and others have bolstered suicide prevention efforts.
Schools have relied upon peer support programs such as Sources of Strength. Community members joined together to post stickers bearing positive message about seeking help in mental health crises in September, suicide prevention and awareness month. This year, volunteers handed out 5,000 stickers in six Southwest Colorado towns as part of the Sticker Shock event.
During the pandemic, groups have found new ways to support young people.
Celebrating Health Communities, a suicide and substance abuse prevention nonprofit, and its partners spent thousands of dollars on supplies for a communitywide art project to “spread cheer, not corona.” Director Breeah Kinsella is also focused on tackling root causes of suicidality, like lethal means, substance use and housing or food insecurity.
La Plata Youth Services had to cancel its youth meals and community gatherings. Plus, transportation access and poor internet service can be barriers to connection, Pepinsky said. So staff members focused on funding cellphone and internet bills, Pepinsky said.
“At the core of our work, one of the most important protective factors for a young person, is a positive connection with an adult,” she said.