COLORADO SPRINGS – Of all the economic and health consequences that befell Americans during the pandemic, the mental health of children and teenagers has become so concerning that the American Psychological Association has declared it a crisis.
The crisis is compounded in El Paso County as the area leads the state in youth suicide, according to Attorney General Phil Weiser. 15 teenagers killed themselves in 2020 — an increase from nine the year before.
Colorado’s mental health situation
Colorado as a whole struggles compared to the rest of the nation. The American Health Rating network tracks 21 suicides for every 100,000 children in Colorado while the national average is 11.2. Since 2010, Colorado’s youth suicides have doubled from 39 to 80 in 2019, according to the organization Kids Count.
Weiser was in Colorado Springs Tuesday to throw his support behind the newly-organized El Paso County Suicide Prevention Collaborative — one of six county-level groups identified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to reduce youth suicide by 20% by 2024.
In El Paso County, 60 organizations are working together to find solutions.
“Suicide is a very complex issue,” said Cassandra Walton, the Executive Director of the EPCSPC. “It’s really hard to say it’s this thing or that thing, the only thing we can look for is what are the common factors that we are seeing.”
Experts say one of the easiest places to start is the safe storage of firearms. Walton says safe storage of guns would have prevented 50% of youth suicides in recent years.
Next is substance abuse. Looking at the population as a whole, substance abuse increased among youth in El Paso County during the pandemic, Walton says.
Talking about mental health
A final common factor was how families talked about mental health.
In surveys conducted, the Collaborative found teenagers did not want to talk to their parents about their mental health, mainly because they felt their parents had enough stress.
Many kids also said they did not believe their parents would want to pay for counseling or therapy.
“Those are very easily addressed,” Walton said. “As a mom myself, I’m going to tell my kid that it’s my job to take care of you, regardless of whatever is going on in my life and I need you to come to me so I can help you.”
Last year, Colorado funded Imatter.org, an online resource that can provide free counseling for certain age groups.
Mental health in LGBTQ community
For some teenagers, particularly those who identify as LGBTQ, coming to their parents about their mental health is not an option. In those cases, Lyss Smith, the communications director for Inside Out Youth Services, says any adult can make a measurable impact.
“We know for instance that just one adult in a young person’s life can reduce suicide by 50 percent,” Smith said. “That’s huge, that is so many lives just by having one adult who a young person can go to and talk to.”
For that reason, the Collaborative is calling for suicide prevention, awareness, identification, and response training to be enhanced in places it already exists, like schools. It is also introducing those resources in places like businesses to maximize the number of people who can be on the lookout for at-risk people.
“There are so many ways we can be there for each other and particularly be there for our young people,” Smith said.
Learning the signs
Having so many people well-versed in the signs of depression and suicide also reduces the stigma, Walton says.
“Reducing the stigma can’t just be a tagline,” Wilson told FOX21. “People have to intentionally take steps to reduce that stigma so our young people can feel comfortable talking about it.”
According to Smith says, and data from the Colorado Health Institute, LGBTQ youth are at a much higher risk of suicide. 42% of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered suicide, compared to 13% of heterosexual students. 21% of LGBTQ youth have attempted suicide before, compared to five percent of youth who identify as heterosexual.
“We know, working with the young people that we do that discrimination and stigma is what causes so many of the negative health outcomes that we face,” Smith said.
You can find the entire plan via the organization’s website.