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Campaign in El Paso County high schools aims to increase awareness of teen suicide

April 15, 2016 Updated: April 15, 2016 at 9:02 pm
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photo - Last year, at least six suicides across the city darkened school days, according to Gazette archives. File photo.
Last year, at least six suicides across the city darkened school days, according to Gazette archives. File photo. 

The one person who prevented newcomer Amelia Foster from feeling alone when she enrolled at Sand Creek High School secretly felt that way himself.

She was sitting by herself at the lunch table the first time he approached her. He sat down, introduced himself and kept talking. Every day after he gave her a "Hi" and a hug, she said.

Over the next year they grew closer, constantly texting, seeing each other at school and calling each other on the phone. Until a call came that wasn't his voice.

He'd taken his life.

Two years later, the news still shocks her, Foster said. He'd always been a lively person, the one that would lift others up when they showed signs of sadness, she said. His sadness he hid, so much so that a best friend didn't notice his crisis.

"He was a magician, and magicians hide their secrets so well," Foster, 17, said. "I do kind of blame myself, because I should have asked more if he was OK and I didn't, and I miss him."

Teen suicide has risen at an alarming rate in Colorado for the past several years, but when El Paso County topped the list for most deaths in the state (and in the nation, according to some studies), students took notice, and now action.

Youths from 21 area high schools participated in a teen suicide prevention campaign over the past week to bring awareness to the crisis, and also to let students know people care, people are listening. It was organized through the Chief's Youth Advisory Council, which is made up of students who meet with the Colorado Springs police Chief Peter Carey and El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder once a month to discuss issues inside the schools.

They passed out wristbands, completed a survey, encouraged students to wear purple and post pictures with friends on social media, and released balloons in honor of students they couldn't reach in time.

It's been met with mixed reactions.

"I've had a few people come up to me and ask me to stop doing what I'm doing, only because they don't think it's going to work," Foster said. "I just say it doesn't hurt to try."

Even saving one person makes it worth it, she said. They've lost so many, including one Sand Creek high schooler this year, she said.

At least one attempted suicide was averted, Sand Creek school resource officer Brad Steckler said.

Last year, at least six suicides across the city darkened school days, according to Gazette archives. Two of the deaths, involving West Middle School students, occurred within a few weeks of each other.

It's a reflection of a trend officials have seen coming.

In 2014, the latest data, Colorado was ranked seventh in the nation for most completed suicides, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It was the leading cause of the death in the state for youths ages 10 to 14, the site said.

El Paso County recorded the highest number of 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 have not been finalized, and it's too early to give preliminary data on 2016 numbers, spokesman Kirk Bols said.

White teen boys are the most at risk, public health statistics show.

In a five-year period, 2010 to 2014, 26 of the 33 deaths were male teens, and 20 of them were white. The next highest demographic was white Hispanic teens, data showed.

Social pressures, schoolwork, performance expectations, problems at home, drug and alcohol use, and other factors can add up to an intense, and seemingly hopeless situation for teens.

Foster said bullying and wanting a sense of belonging are the main contributing factors she's noticed driving up suicide rates.

One of two of her family members who have attempted suicide did so because of bullying, she said.

"Us as teenagers, the words that we say cut deep into each other and we don't really realize it until something disastrous or traumatic happens," Foster said.

The campaign ended Friday, but efforts to reverse El Paso County's rising suicide rate won't. Foster said she plans to continue having inspirational quotes read during the morning announcements, and hopes everyone plays a part in looking out for each other.

Counselors are there to help. Teachers are there. Officer Steckler is there.

She is there, Foster said, reiterating the message she wishes she would have said more often to her best friend: "They're not alone."

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Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362

Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin

Facebook: Kaitlin Durbin

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