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El Paso County Coroner's Office data points to troubling problems with drugs, suicide

Death watch

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Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Leon Kelly says data collection on deaths can help address problems. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Leon Kelly says data collection on deaths can help address problems.

Local drug overdose deaths soared to 126 last year, while suicides claimed 15 youths.

These data points can be found in the 2016 annual report from the El Paso County Coroner's Office, which conducts hundreds of autopsies each year on those who die due to accidents, suicide, homicide or, in some cases, natural causes.

The latest report, when compared to past reports, demonstrates just how much of a problem drugs and suicide have become. In 2007, drugs were blamed in 63 deaths, so that number has doubled in nine years, and heroin deaths have nearly quadrupled, from 13 to 50. Teen suicides, meantime, also have nearly doubled since 2007 when eight youths took their lives.

Such trend lines could help law enforcement, schools and public health officials zero in on community problems — though this data has some issues that the office is seeking to fix (see sidebar below).

"Change starts with good data," says Leon Kelly, El Paso County's deputy chief medical examiner, who wrote the 2016 report. "There's enlightening information here that can help us, as a community, focus on certain things."

Drug overdose fatalities, from heroin in particular, are no surprise to Colorado Springs Police Lt. Mark Comte with the Metro Vice Narcotics and Intelligence Unit, a multi-agency regional unit.

"Heroin has overwhelmed the market," Comte says in an interview. "For those age 17 to 25, it's a huge problem."

And it could get worse. "We haven't even begun to see the issues here that they see on the East Coast," he says. The Centers for Disease Control report that between 2000 and 2015, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths nationwide more than quadrupled. In 2015, more than 12,989 people died.

Comte says more heroin is making its way to the Pikes Peak region from Mexico after the drug cartels realized profits no longer lie with marijuana, which Colorado voters legalized for recreational use in 2012. Heroin arrest figures back up that claim. In 2009, there were 58 arrests by Metro VNI for possession and/or distribution of heroin, compared to 290 last year, a five-fold increase.

Besides taking dealers off the streets, Metro VNI and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency work to disrupt networks by seizing money, drugs and property. But Comte notes the drug trade is so vast and insidious that "if we arrest one person for delivery and transportation, he'll have a replacement the next day or later that afternoon."

"We can't arrest ourselves out of this problem," he adds. "The best we can do is intervene and disrupt it."

The long-term strategy, he says, should be to reduce the demand. "With heroin, the real solution is treatment availability," Comte says. Adding, "Right now, unless you are insured or have financial resources, successful treatment is very limited."

Andrew Romanoff, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, says the legislature recently adopted House Bill 1351, which requires the state to analyze the cost and impact of covering, as a Medicaid benefit, residential and inpatient treatment of substance use disorders.

But even if treatment was funded, the state remains woefully lacking in space, he says. Colorado's 1,250 inpatient treatment beds for mental and substance abuse disorders falls short by half, he says.

"We also have a shortage of therapists, outpatient services, supportive housing," Romanoff adds. "There's a bunch of services we need to be providing if we want to end the use of jails to house people with addictions and mental disorders."

Preventing teen suicides is also a challenge. Kelly says in an effort to address the problem, he's begun collecting additional information on the deaths. Before a state law passed in 2014 requiring a multi-agency review of all child fatalities, some death investigators might not have delved deep with families and friends. Now, he says, they try to find out if family discord was an issue or if the teen experienced a loss of a loved one recently. The review also looks for other factors, like problems at school, sexuality and bullying. The goal is to assemble "usable, tangible evidence-based information that law enforcement and public health and schools can actually do something with."

Kelly says the wider scope of inquiry already has yielded one helpful finding: Teen suicides rarely occur during the summer, suggesting that school stressors and social interactions take a toll.

"Academy District 20 was very hard hit," he says, noting a spate of suicides last fall. And the district responded with a series of efforts that Kelly called "amazing."

Better data

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