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A lot of El Paso County teens commit suicide; schools and government have taken notice



Over the holiday season, four local teens took their own lives.

Danielle and Cameron were 17 years old, Colby was 16 and Memphis was 14. It was a lot of deaths for two months, but it hardly qualifies as an anomaly.

Colorado has the distinction of having the nation's seventh highest suicide rate. The statistics get a little trickier on youth suicides, though that number is also high. (We're third in the nation for youth suicides, ages 10 to 18, though Kirk Bol, interim vital records registrar for the Colorado Center for Health and Environmental Data, says statistically there is no real difference between the rates of the top 20 states.)

El Paso County isn't exactly a role model. While statistically speaking, there's no difference between the county and state suicide rates, it's reasonable to assume that El Paso County is nowhere near the low end for the state — and our rate has been going up. Between 2012 and 2014, the county recorded 24 youth suicides (ages 10 to 18) for a rate of 9.39 deaths per 100,000 youths, while the state had 140 youth suicides, for a rate of 7.41 deaths per 100,000 youths.

All that might lead you to ask: What are we doing wrong?

But maybe the better question is: What could we do better?

Actually, a lot of people are asking that question, from state government to county government and school districts.

Dr. Kim Boyd was recently named 2015 Colorado School Psychologist of the Year by the Colorado Society of School Psychologists, after working in Falcon School District 49 for 15 years. It's the school district that Memphis attended.

Boyd, D-49's lead school psychologist, says she and other staff are working to prevent more deaths. Many schools have suicide prevention programs, along with other popular social programs, like anti-bullying classes.

At Academy District 20, where Colby, Danielle and Cameron went to school, counselor Andrea Lucero at Rampart High School says via email that new programs are being put into place. "Signs of Suicide" is being blended into 9th grade health classes at three D-20 high schools and eventually will be in all D-20 middle and high schools. Lucero says the program educates kids about mental illness, tries to remove stigma, teaches coping skills and shows kids how to help someone who might be suicidal.

D-49 has similar programs in its middle and high schools, as well as short programs that can be deployed in a crisis situation. Programs that focus on preventing suicide are appropriate sometimes, Boyd says, but she believes the roots of the problems go much deeper.

"Those are good activities, but they don't focus on the underlying difficulties that our children are facing: that they don't know how to manage or have coping strategies when things don't go the way that they think they should," she says. "And they don't know how to manage some of those emotional states, and then they get out of control, and then they end up wanting to end that pain."

D-49 has emotional education courses for older teens, but Boyd says she thinks the main target should be elementary school kids, kindergartners, preschoolers and even toddlers. Programs for younger kids aren't about suicide specifically; they're about dealing with emotions. Since coping is a habit we build early and usually carry through our lives, Boyd says programs for younger kids focus on their stresses.

For example, Boyd says, "How do you manage when your friends don't want to play with you or when a friend takes a toy away from you?"

Boyd also hosts classes for parents, and D-49 offers special help for very young kids with learning delays. That can help preserve self-esteem and assist students in blending socially and academically into classes more successfully when they're older.

Another D-49 strategy, she says, is rewarding kids for good behavior. Many schools use cards that can be traded for goodies or put in a raffle. Other schools recognize kids who get the cards at an assembly.

"The goal of that is not just to have your student-council-No. 1 kid stand up there, but get those kids that have made an improvement," Boyd says. "Maybe, they were getting suspended four times a semester, or something, and they haven't had one suspension [this semester]."

Kids like that, she says, rarely get positive feedback from adults, and they need it the most.

Since 1989, the Child Fatality Prevention System State Review Team has been assessing Colorado's child deaths to learn more about how to prevent them. Between 2008 and 2012, 3,250 kids younger than 18 died in Colorado. Of those deaths, 1,041 were considered "preventable" and were given a thorough review. Suicides accounted for 14.5 percent of those fatalities, or 151 deaths.

Colleen Kapsimalis, program manager for the Prevention System and coordinator for the State Review Team, says the team sometimes recommends legislation or policy changes based on its findings. For instance, safe sleep standards for children (used by child-care providers) were updated recently due to patterns noticed in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome deaths.

The state also recently began recommending two programs for schools on coping skills and suicide prevention. Kapsimalis says one emphasis is "playing on the youths' strengths and helping them understand that they have strengths." For instance, showing kids they can talk to parents and friends.

But most of the review team's work focuses on local governments. In 2013, Senate Bill 255 mandated that the review process move from a state to a local function. County public health agencies were required to set up their own review teams by January 2015.

Myrna Candreia, coordinator for El Paso County's child fatality review team, says her team decided to focus on youth suicide prevention last year. The county has since been awarded a three-year grant totaling $295,000 to hire a youth suicide prevention partner to work on prevention strategies. It's too early to say what priorities the partner will have, but much will likely be "policy work," according to county sources.

It seems reasonable to expect that the recommendations of both state and county workers will be similar to Boyd's. Like Boyd, state and county workers use terms like "coping" and "communication skills" when talking about suicide prevention. That might signify the beginning of a larger shift in how schools and governments address suicide.

Boyd wants experts to go a step further. Teaching emotional skills, she says, will do more than reduce suicides; it has the potential to ease the other ills that plague schools. Interestingly, she says, the tragic mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 pushed districts to talk in-depth about issues like bullying and suicide. Initially, schools were simply trying to teach kids not to do something: "don't bully" or "don't self-harm." Boyd doubts that really works. In fact, she thinks anti-bullying campaigns have often just created "better bullies," who are smarter about avoiding punishment.

Schools, she says, should stop focusing on stopping behaviors and start helping to build their students' character.

"I think all of those things are related," she says. "You know the threats that kids are making against other kids at school? That's also an inability to cope with their social and emotional interactions. Suicide is another way of dealing with that. Bullying is another way of dealing with that.

"And if we could help our kids understand and manage their emotional states and how to be socially appropriate and how to work with each other, then we wouldn't have as many of these other issues."

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