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Colorado Springs teen suicides stun schools, worry parents

May 24, 2016 Updated: May 25, 2016 at 3:56 pm
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Discovery Canyon Campus High School (Photo courtesy: Academy District 20)

Three Colorado Springs teens at two high schools took their lives last week, and along with the shock and grief, parents are bewildered. How could this happen? Why?

"They recently had suicide prevention training for the kids and the parents, and the suicides happened afterward. That was really depressing," said Laura Speer, whose son is a junior at Discovery Canyon Campus High School, which lost two students to suicide. The 15-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy, both popular freshmen, were friends, Speer said.

"You don't expect that here. I think the school is good," she said. "To have two in the same week is nerve-wracking."

A 15-year-old boy from Manitou High School in Manitou Springs School District 14 also committed suicide last week.

The end of the school year can be particularly trying for teens, experts say, as students face academic pressures, bullying, uncertainty about the future, problems at home, substance abuse and other stresses that can seem unbearable.

The same pattern happened last May in Colorado Springs, including two students from West Middle School in Colorado Springs School District 11 who committed suicide.

"Last year we had heavy clustering the last month of school and the first few weeks out of school. This year, sadly, that trend is continuing," said Dr. Leon Kelly, deputy chief medical examiner for the El Paso County Coroner's Office.

The issue is difficult to understand, said Janet Karnes, executive director of Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention Partnership.

"Part of the problem is we're always looking for mental illnesses; a lot of the time it's situational - due to situations," she said.

A total of 14 El Paso County youth, up to age 17, committed suicide in 2015, according to the coroner's office, double the 2014 number of seven.

There have been eight adolescent suicides in 2016, Kelly said, compared to four by this time in 2015.

The most common method was the use of firearms, which has continued this year, he said. Hanging is second.

"Let's hope it does not persist into summer, as it did last year," Kelly said.

El Paso County topped the list for most teen suicides in the state from 2012 to 2014, with 24 deaths - more than tripling that of Denver, according to statistics from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The 2015 numbers are not out yet.

To help bring awareness to the problem and let students know help is available, the Colorado Springs Police Chief's Youth Advisory Council organized a teen suicide prevention campaign last month, with youth from 21 area high schools participating. The problem is difficult for people to talk about. Academy School District 20 officials, who oversee Discovery Canyon Campus, would not answer questions, including how many suicides the district has had this school year.

Since last August when school started, 15 teen suicides have occurred county wide, Kelly said. Discovery Canyon had another earlier this school year, according to parents.

The school community is devastated," said a mom who has two sons attending Discovery Canyon. "It's scary and terrible. It puts people on high alert."

Karnes, whose organization provides training and resources about suicide prevention to all age levels, said she's concerned media coverage will produce copycat acts.

"If students know some of the schools are struggling, there could be contagion," she said. "We need to focus on how to talk about suicide safely and the support groups that are available, from children to adults."

Social media has been active with the recent news, along with notices of memorial services and fundraising drives to help families pay for costs. Young Life, a Christian youth ministry, held a prayer walk at Discovery Canyon Campus over the weekend. Both Discovery Canyon students who died recently were involved with the group.

Young Life's national headquarters in Colorado Springs released this statement to The Gazette Tuesday: "Young Life has been extremely involved with kids following these recent deaths. Our staff and leaders have been meeting with kids pretty regularly. Most of these meetings have occurred at the homes of kids where leaders have just shown up and have hung out for hours with kids, as they have processed through their grief. Caring, loving adults walking alongside of kids supporting them in the good times and the difficult times of life is the essence of what Young Life is about."

Moms from the school have organized another prayer walk for 8:15 a.m. Wednesday.

Counselors also have been available to talk to students, according to parents.

"I told my son that there's nothing in this world he could do that would be that bad," Speer said. "It's so sad."

The incidents hit too close to home for Anita Hagen's son, a Discovery Canyon sophomore who was friends with one of the students.

"He's having a very rough time handling it because we had a suicide in our family six years ago with my stepson," Hagen said.

Her son is receiving professional therapy and "a lot of family support."

"Losing your own is unthinkable and so hard when it happens," Hagen said. "It opens your eyes. You look at everything a little differently. My kids tell me I'm overprotective now."

Karnes encourages parents to "turn their concerns into action" by getting trained in how to recognize the warning signs and talk about suicide - if not for the benefit of their own child, then for the children of relatives, friends and neighbors.

Her organization offers counseling services, does educational presentations on prevention, runs a grief support program for youth suffering losses from suicide, has a program for people with thoughts or actions toward suicide and operates support groups for family members of attempters.

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