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Problem of teen suicide in Colorado Springs tackled by Youth Documentary Academy filmmakers

October 25, 2016 Updated: October 25, 2016 at 7:17 am
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Students work with professional filmmakers to learn the art of documentary filmmaking at the Youth Documentary Academy at the Fine Arts Center. Courtesy Youth Documentary Academy.

During the summer of 2015 two Palmer High School students committed suicide within one week of each other.

One of them was Dominic Saunders, 14, who had recently lost his mother. The story of his life and death is the subject of his peer Kalia Hunter's documentary "Dom." The senior made the film during this summer's third annual Youth Documentary Academy at the Fine Arts Center. Her film is one of nine YDA documentaries making their premiere Wednesday at the FAC.

"Suicide is a prevalent issue in Colorado Springs," Hunter says. "Colorado has the highest suicide rate in the nation and Colorado Springs has the most suicides in the state, especially youth suicides. It's prevalent at my own high school. It's an issue a lot of people don't really know about. I wanted people to understand and feel a personal connection to it."

When Hunter returned to school in the fall of 2015, she anticipated the school or teachers would acknowledge the deaths and provide information about suicide or mental health awareness. What she encountered was more like radio silence, she says.

"I was hoping for an acknowledgment of who he (Saunders) was as a person," Hunter says. "I was hoping for grief counseling. That's a traumatic experience for a 14-, 15- or 16-year-old to go through alone. Not everybody has the means for counseling and the school provided none of that."

The film intensive was founded in 2013 to train young people ages 14-18 how to direct and produce their own documentary films. A dozen out of 45 applicants were selected for the free seven-week training in June and July.

Program graduates have gone on to great success with their films. Five documentaries from the 2015 class were accepted into the All American High School Film Festival in New York City this month. One student from the inaugural year of the academy in 2014 won for best documentary at the same festival last year..

Hunter wasn't the only YDA student to tackle the timely issue. Dee Contreras, a senior at Widefield High School, turned the camera on herself and captured her struggle with suicide attempts after being bullied for coming out as gay. During last year's YDA, Madison Legg, a Cheyenne Mountain High School student, made a film about her brother's attempted suicide.

"We actually brought in a woman who did some sort of a trauma informed care session with us as instructors," says Tom Shepard, a documentary filmmaker and founder of YDA. "We felt the material was pretty fresh for a couple of them, but it also wasn't the first time they were talking about it - they'd talked to family and friends. They wanted some vehicle to express and communicate the issues."

Hunter used her film as a way to work through her own grief and hopes to show it to school administrators.

"I want to work with schools and get them to be aware of suicides and depression," she says, "and work with teachers so they can also recognize the signs and teach students coping mechanisms to deal with school because it's stressful."

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