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Shedding light on suicide

December 22, 2013 Updated: December 27, 2013 at 4:43 pm
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photo - Air Academy students Kat Dowell and Zack Mace (left to right) have joined forces with school counselor, Sherri O'Lonergan to be proactive about teen suicide. Wednesday, December 18, 2013.  (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
Air Academy students Kat Dowell and Zack Mace (left to right) have joined forces with school counselor, Sherri O'Lonergan to be proactive about teen suicide. Wednesday, December 18, 2013. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) 

Zack Mace doesn't sugar-coat the facts.

"It's bad. It's widespread. It's not going away," the 18-year-old Air Academy High School senior says.

He's talking about what many consider a taboo subject: Suicide.

The Pikes Peak region continues to have a frustratingly high suicide rate of 18.6 per 100,000 residents - about the same as the state's current track record but well above the national average of 11.9 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.

Most concerning for Janet Karnes, executive director of the Suicide Prevention Partnership of the Pikes Peak Region, is that the largest increases locally are in the younger age groups of 19 to 24 years old and 25 to 34 years old.

"People who die by suicide are in great pain, and they see no way to alleviate it," she said. "Suicide is very complicated. There's no easy answer."

What is known is that intervention and prevention techniques work, and in the case of teens, so does a little help from friends.

Mace can attest to the value of peer assistance and this semester has been part of an awareness-raising campaign in Academy School District 20.

The effort started at the beginning of the fall semester and has grown into a district-wide charge to educate students, teachers and parents about the warning signs and what they can do to help prevent an unnecessary death.

Mace's 16-year-old cousin recently took her life and that experience inspired him to get involved at school.

"You feel so helpless," he said. "She felt there was no one out there for her, and she's not the only one."

Air Academy sophomore Kat Dowell also can empathize. As an only child, she said she grew up feeling "pretty lonely," and has met others who felt as isolated as she did, and they attempted suicide.

For every completed suicide in the nation - nearly 40,000 each year - there are an estimated 15 to 25 attempts, Karnes said.

In El Paso County, 151 people died by suicide in 2012, up from 112 in 2011, she said, which does not include active-duty military. There were an estimated 3,000 attempts here.

For teens, the stresses in their lives, including social pressures, schoolwork and performance expectations, problems at home, drug and alcohol use, and other factors can add up to an intense, and seemingly hopeless, situation.

"I know quite a few people who have attempted," Mace said. "They don't know how to handle their feelings and what's happening in their lives. Just knowing you're not alone can be a huge help."

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds, and the second among people aged 25-34 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Air Academy High School Counselor Sherri O'Lonergan said that the issue has impacted the school district on "numerous occasions."

"We've already had two suicides this year," she said.

The belief that talking about suicide will prompt more suicides is a myth, O'Lonergan said.

"Giving people the opportunity to talk about it helps, not hurts," she said, adding that two days after school-wide presentations an Air Academy student was identified as being "seriously suicidal" and got the assistance she needed.

"I feel like the school really brought attention to it, that it is a problem and it's happening to kids everywhere," Dowell said.

Mace and other students made posters and bracelets during September's Suicide Prevention Week, and all classes watched videos about the topic.

The images and words were so powerful, Dowell said she started sobbing and decided to become part of the project.

The message "Be Aware, Show You Care" encouraged students to be cognizant of the signs someone might be contemplating suicide and show they care by getting help from someone trustworthy and knowledgeable. Students such as Mace and Dowell also made themselves available to listen, talk and share information with fellow students.

"There's a social stigma in high school about caring," Mace said. "It's everyone's job to be nice, kind and care about others."

Four out of five teens will tell another teen about their intentions, O'Lonergan said.

Based on the positive response of Air Academy's campaign, she's received approval to launch a program to begin training principals, then teachers district-wide. Next up will be student training and parent sessions.

Another new local avenue: The Suicide Prevention Partnership of the Pikes Peak Region will start a weekly teen support group in mid-January in a Suicide Anonymous type of format, Karnes said. The organization also offers Children Left Behind by Suicide support groups for 5 to 12 year olds and 13 to 19 year olds.

The office is at 704 N. Tejon St. For more information, call 573-7447.

The metro crisis hotline, for anyone experiencing a crisis, is 888-885-1222.

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