Although Montezuma County has the second-highest per capita suicide rate in Colorado, according to Coroner George Deavers, it’s still a difficult subject to discuss.
But after two girls took their own lives last year, a community group formed, then created a task force that continues to work to prevent and understand suicide.
Henk Huetink, a community volunteer, became the project leader in December and helped organize Wednesday’s Suicide Prevention Community Summit at Montezuma-Cortez High School.
“Some of the people did some investigation, and there was some input from the school counselors that was especially alarming for me,” Huetink said. “We made some recommendations, and one of the key recommendations was to have this summit.”
Susan Becker, a psychology professor at Colorado Mesa University, was Wednesday’s keynote speaker.
“The rate in your region was 28 per 100,000 in that time period,” Becker said. “For every death due to suicide, there are on average six recorded attempts. In Western Colorado, that number is much closer to 11.”
Deavers put the average at 12 suicides per year.
She spoke openly to the crowd about warning signs and action plans and asked the audience to practice asking one another if they were considering suicide. “Why practice?” she asked. “Practice until you can say the words without tripping over it.”
Becker laid out action steps of approach, ask and agree. She emphasized that it is important to approach the subject, ask the question, then get them to agree to be safe until more help is found.
“You’re building hope for them because you are with them, and they are not alone anymore,” she said.
However, she said, those action steps won’t work well with a child.
She encouraged audience members to speak up during the keynote speech.
A school counselor in the audience said that she hears students saying alarming phrases such as, “This school would be better without me, none of the kids like me anyway,” every day.
Phrases that infer that the person thinks of themselves as a burden, changes in appearance or lack of hygiene, unfounded anger and withdrawing from activities can all be warning signs, according to Becker.
“In the schools, one of the things they talk about a lot is when they see these kids (without proper hygiene), they are either really depressed or they are homeless,” Becker said. “In either case, you need to have a conversation about how they are doing.”
Kylie Caraher, who lost her child in November 2016, came to the summit from Durango.
“My hope is that it can bring a sense of compassionate listening, something that Susan talked a lot about today,” Caraher said. “Just being open and wanting to listen – I feel like that is really powerful in easing someone’s suffering.”
Becker also discussed how bullying can be a factor for suicidal thoughts in schools.
“Being bullied and being the bully both are very much signs that someone can be at risk,” Becker said. “Being the bully means you are not a happy person, and you are in some kind of pain that you are trying to deal with that way.”
The topic of cyberbullying was also discussed by Becker, administrators and teachers.
“It used to be when a student had a bad day at school, they would go home and recoup, but with social media, the pressure that they have is 24/7,” Lori Haukeness, Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 Superintendent, told The Journal at the event. “I think it is very important that administrators, educators, teachers – educators in general – really understand the pressures and what we can do to support the students so basically the students never get to the point where they think this is their only option.”
“I know cyberbullying is a huge issue, Nicholaus Sandner, drama teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School said. “I have had kids who have been targeted by some pretty nasty cyberbullying issues, and I may not have any idea about it until it has gotten really bad.”
Kristina Ricca, from Dolores, took her daughter, Jordan, out of public schools after bullying that began in sixth grade became an overwhelming issue. Both attended the summit on Wednesday.
“People my age are looking to go out and get help, and we need to bring it closer to them, doing more things in high schools,” Jordan Ricca said. “There should be ways in high school to be able to reach out anonymously and make it easier to talk about such a hard subject to talk about.”
Haukeness and Sandner highlighted a program in Montezuma-Cortez schools called “Safe to Tell,” which encourages students to tell an adult if they know someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts.
“I am not comfortable with high school students carrying the burden of responsibility of ‘safe until we get more help,’” Becker said. “What we have been talking quite a bit about with high schools in our area is about an adapted intervention training for high school students where you could seek a trusted adult.”
Becker said she would love to share that training with Montezuma-Cortez schools, but for now, she is focused on making sure kids know to tell an adult and that the adult knows what to do next.
Becker encouraged the use of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the services provided by calling at 1-800-273-8255.