Over the course of the last year, our community became all too familiar with the fallout from youth suicide. As a result, District 20, which suffered the most loss in the city, has put a focus on district-wide suicide prevention.
But it's a sad fact that LGBTQ students, who are dangerously at-risk for depression and suicidal ideation, do not always receive the specifically targeted attention they need. Those of us who grew up gay or gender non-conforming in the Springs know the challenges — bullying, harassment, nonexistent inclusive sex education, constant exposure to an insensitive religious culture — but the struggle is often invisible from the outside.
To put it in perspective: A 2016 CDC report says that LGB (lesbian, gay and bisexual) youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Moreover, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, 35 percent of transgender students in Colorado attempted suicide in the 12 months prior to taking the survey, and 40 percent considered it.
Mary Malia, executive director of Inside/Out Youth Services, hopes their new program expansion can address this problem, especially in the district that needs it most.
"Our primary mission underneath everything is suicide prevention," Malia says. "We help kids feel good about themselves, we help them feel safe and we help them figure out who they are."
Inside/Out's downtown location has been in operation since 1990 and serves about 500 young people a year. Now, the organization has started a bi-monthly satellite program at Library 21c, farther north where it may be more accessible to D-20 students and anyone between the ages of 13 and 22.
"There's lots of kids who are never going to get downtown," she says, "Either parents aren't going to take them or their parents don't know. And now here we are at the library. What parent isn't going to take their kid to the library?"
The group will meet every other Friday, 3-6 p.m. until June, hopefully providing a place for the Northside's LGBTQ students to gather. The value of this service can't be overstated, but what is it that makes Inside/Out effective in suicide prevention?
For one, a sense of community — a community that takes pride in the very thing that these youth are told to be ashamed of. "Our program really revolves around safe, supervised space that is all about being gay, gay, gay," Malia says. "It's all about these kids. And what do they want? They want to express this thing that's in them and figure it out."
The downtown space is decorated with every LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual) flag imaginable, plus posters, artwork and the organization's "butterfly rules" which address respect, safe sex, inclusivity and other values of the organization.
They watch movies, play games, talk through techniques for emotional resiliency and meet other young people like themselves who share and embrace their identity. On top of that, Inside/Out focuses on three factors that help reduce youth suicide attempts: trusted adults, school safety and extracurricular activities.
"For LGBTQIA+ youth, school is often not a safe place," Malia says, "and they may or may not feel there is someone safe to talk to at school ... There aren't extracurricular activities apart from a GTSA [gay-trans-straight alliance] that's available for them to attend."
So they come to Inside/Out, where they get the support that schools can't or don't provide. For now, the extension won't include all the activities the downtown location does — guest speakers, job recruiters, cooking lessons — but Malia says that may change depending on funding and the attendees' needs.
To extend programming, Inside/Out will need more committed volunteers than their current 40, and they'll need donations to support food and activities. Though the $21,855 they collected through their Indy Give! campaign will help, it won't last long. Without any major grants, they rely on the goodwill of the public. It's time to be generous.
Given everything LGBTQ youth are up against, it's not enough to say "it gets better." We need to make it better now. Meanwhile, LGBTQ youth experiencing suicidal thoughts can take advantage of these resources: thetrevorproject.org, itgetsbetter.org and pikespeaksuicideprevention.org.