The recent suicides of two middle school students over the weekend have spurred conversation in Montezuma-Cortez schools and in the larger community about suicide prevention and youth mental health.
The teenagers who died, 15-year-old Jeit Redrock Height and 14-year-old Andrew William Cuch Jr., were members of the Towaoc community and enrolled at Cortez Middle School.
“This week has been really tough,” said Carrie Schneider, the seventh-grade counselor at CMS and the district’s crisis counselor. “It’s just hard to hear that we have this many students that we’ve lost to suicide, or even attempting. It’s been tough.”
Also in the past week, two high school students attempted to take their own lives, according to the school district. Both students were recovering in the hospital on Thursday.
The suicides in Cortez are part of a larger trend across Colorado and the nation.
Suicide is a leading cause of death among adolescents in Colorado, according to Andrew Romanoff, CEO and president of Mental Health Colorado. Nationally, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people between 10 and 24, after accidental injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Suicide has proven to be a very stubborn. ... The numbers don’t seem to go down,” Romanoff said.
Last year in Montezuma County, 13 people, all age 18 or older, died by suicide, up from 11 in 2017, according to county Coroner George Deavers. In 2016, two young students died by suicide in the county.
The reasons for a death by suicide are generally multilayered, said Jarrod Hindman, deputy chief of the violence and injury prevention and mental health promotion branch of the Colorado Department of Health.
Some of the contributing factors to suicide risk can include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, poverty and historical trauma. A victim of ongoing sexual or physical violence is also at risk of suicide, he said.
Support in schoolsThe deaths have shaken community, students and teachers alike. Schneider has been meeting with a stream of students since Tuesday, she said, and the middle school has seen a host of student absences.
She expressed gratitude for teachers’ strength, highlighting their ability to maintain structure in the classroom.
“I’m grateful that we have such a strong group of teachers,” Schneider said. “I know our teachers have been talking with students and checking in and listening to them in this time.”
She has encouraged students to meet with counselors during lunch, she said, just to hang out and know they have a trusted adult.
In a letter to parents, Superintendent Lori Haukeness shared news on the recent suicides and suicide attempts and highlighted some of the specific actions going on right now.
“We are deeply concerned about the safety and well-being of ALL our students,” she said in her letter. “We want each and every one of our students to know that YOU matter, we care about YOU, and we are here to SUPPORT YOU no matter what you are facing.”
Haukeness highlighted resources including the suicide prevention program Sources of Strength, school counselors, peer supports, and Safe-to-Tell, an anonymous reporting service.
“Currently, we are working to quickly identify students who may be most at risk and who may be considering suicide,” she said. “We are working with the Ute Tribe and other community organizations to personally follow-up with these students to ensure they are safe and have the supports that they need.”
One of these organizations is the Piñon Project, a family services center on Main Street. The site has been engaged in a flurry of email exchanges with the school district this week, said Maggie Tevault, early childhood programs coordinator with the project.
“A lot of email traffic from the schools, that know that we have suicide prevention programs here,” Tevault said. “There are several schools that are working to implement our Sources of Strength program, which is a suicide prevention and resiliency-building program.”
Sources of Strength is a school-based suicide prevention program, in which young people are trained as peer leaders to focus on building strong connections within the school community. A lot of schools had basic implementation training, but full program implementation hadn’t happened because of time constraints, she said.
“Then unfortunately when things like this happen, it pops to the forefront of everyone’s mind again,” Tevault said. “And I think it’s really important that we get these programs implemented, that we get the support. One of the biggest issues – it wasn’t that staff didn’t want to implement it, it wasn’t that students didn’t want to be involved, it was time.”
Piñon Project preventionLucia Bueno-Valdez is the facilitator for the Piñon Project’s Wraparound program. Through Wraparound, she and others go into the district’s middle and high schools to support students who have been referred by counselors – students struggling academically, but also with mental health or family issues.
“Just building those positive relationships in and out of school,” she said. They call the school-oriented branch of the program “Wraplite.”
On Wednesday, Wraplite’s two family support partners – or student advocates – went in to the high school to speak to small groups of students.
“A couple of our Wraplite clients have been really affected by this week’s events,” Bueno-Valdez said. “They just went there to say, ‘Hey, we’re here.’”
Overall, too, the incidents demonstrated a need for young people and adults to connect with one another, to show each other that they are valued.
Dante Downey is a Montezuma-Cortez High School student who serves as a youth advocate with the Piñon Project. He has been pushing for stronger suicide prevention programming in schools, meeting with school administration and speaking up at last week’s school board meeting.
The idea of “support,” he said, can be much more basic than what people generally think of. He recalled an email he received after this week’s incidents, simply checking in to ask him if he was OK.
“This is what support is, just letting someone know that you’re important and valued, and I’m glad that you’re here, pretty much,” Downey said. “That’s the community support that I feel like we do need, is just everyone who’s willing to step in and check in with you.”
And the very real problem of suicide needs to be confronted and discussed openly, they said.
“We need to be the leaders and say it,” Bueno-Valdez said. “I think it takes a group of people to say, ‘This is happening, in this community. Suicide is real, it’s being completed.’”
Adults need to be better about listening to young people’s needs too, she said.
“This happens, and we all want to react, we want to react in that moment,” Bueno-Valdez said. “And we’re still not getting down to their level, and asking them, and then really listening.”
She added that there are no universal “warning signs,” and emphasized that idea can place unfair and undue blame on friends and family.
“Saying there are signs to youth especially is really difficult, because then it comes back on, ‘Well, then I didn’t see it. And I didn’t do anything when I did.’”
“I don’t think that that’s fair,” she said. “Especially for the youth.”
Community responseAfter the teen suicides in 2016, a task force formed in Montezuma County to respond and held suicide intervention trainings, said Henk Huetink, a counselor at The Recovery Center. Although one suicide summit drew about 90 people, he said, the group has been inactive recently.
However, Huetink said he would like to see more educational events that would give residents the skills to respond to an individual in crisis.
“The adolescent suicides have certainly been making headlines. But it’s across the board,” he said.
He also would like to see a group to allow suicide survivors to share their stories, with others who can relate.
A death can open doors to building a coalition to address the problem and plan long-term steps, Hindman said.
Caring for the grieversIn the wake of a suicide, one of the most important actions is to talk about it, local counselors said.
For adults parenting or working with teens, it’s important to establish open communications right away, so that young people know they can approach adults in their lives later, said Judy Austin, executive director of The Grief Center of Southwest Colorado.
“That means answering the questions as truthfully as you can,” she said.
It’s also important to answer questions in a culturally and an age-appropriate way, she said.
State, national prevention stepsMontezuma County is one of six counties in Colorado selected to help create a model for suicide prevention that could be used nationwide. The goal of the Colorado-National Collaborative is to create a suicide-prevention model to reduce suicide 20 percent statewide by 2024.
So far, the collaborative has received $200,000 to fund some preliminary work, including hiring a coordinator to work with all six counties, Hindman said. But the collaborative has had trouble securing enough funding to eliminate suicide prevention strategies in communities, he said.
The new prevention work will focus on how to handle a suicide death, increasing economic stability of communities and increasing suicide prevention and awareness through trainings. The collaborative also wants to promote improving social connectedness through programs such as Sources of Strength, he said.
The collaborative also plans to promote the Zero Suicide model in health care systems. Axis Health System has adopted the Zero Suicide model, which provides guidance about how to improve care by including suicide survivors in planning, training employees in effective therapeutic methods and using data to inform changes in health care.
Mental Health Colorado is also backing several bills at the state legislature that would address the suicide by bolstering the number of mental health professionals in schools and train those in health care, education and law enforcement to see the early warning sides of suicide, Romanoff said.
The group is also backing a bill that would better enforce laws that require insurance companies to provide sufficient coverage for the treatment of mental health and substance use disorders.
“What’s happening now it really shines the light on how we need capacity and funding for positions that can support suicide prevention,” said Mary Dengler-Frey, regional health connector for the Southwestern Colorado Area Health Education Center.
The Piñon Project at 210 E. Main St. is seeking adult mentors for a waiting list of children who need mentorship, Bueno-Valdez and Trevault said. Ideally, adult mentors are able to commit to about 12 hours a month, or three hours a week. For more information, visit pinonproject.org or contact the Youth Programs Department at 564-3801.
Ute Mountain Ute community leaders will host an open house Friday from 3-5 p.m. at the Towaoc Recreation Center, in order to share mental health and general resources with the community. All are welcome.