The suicide of a best friend in 2016 and subsequent suicides of other teens she knew left 18-year-old Hannah Mitchell feeling empty, broken and wondering if she could have done anything to save their lives.
“It was such a hard time,” Hannah said. “We were experiencing a suicide rate unimaginable in our school district and El Paso County.”
Suicides among El Paso County youths aged 10 to 18 doubled from 24 in 2012-14 to 48 in 2015-17 in El Paso County, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office reported.
But while it’s too late to save those teens, it’s not too late for others, Hannah said, noticing a “large disconnect” between some of her peers and their parents.
She connected with other students to form a nonprofit and then branch out on her own, producing a successful student art show themed “Reasons to Stay Alive.”
For her efforts to improve teen mental health and help prevent youth suicide, Hannah has been named one of two Colorado winners of the 2019 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program that honors youth for “outstanding acts of volunteerism.”
The graduating senior from Pine Creek High School in Academy School District 20 will be in Washington, D.C., Saturday through Wednesday to not only pick up her $1,000 prize and engraved silver medallion, but also to chat up her project with lawmakers.
“This year has been the first year I feel I’ve touched individual lives and made a difference,” Hannah said. “I’m excited to go to Washington, D.C., and meet people who share the same goals.”
The award, in its 24th year, is sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals. As part of the honor, Hannah received a congratulatory letter from President Donald Trump.
She and five other students first formed “Project Reasons,” a nonprofit to “remind suicidal people and people dealing with mental disorders of the things and people that are worth staying alive for.”
The organization also reached out to adults to better explain suicide from a teen perspective.
Relying on her personal way to ease the pain — turning to art as an outlet for her tumultuous emotions — Hannah then spun off to create the student art show at her school in the fall of 2017.
“I wanted to create an event to encourage students to create art and educate adults and students who came to see the gallery,” she said. “I knew how art had impacted me.”
In the first year, 300 people came to see 60 pieces of student art.
The show, focused on the joy of life and raising awareness of the crisis, had a bigger and better performance last October 2018.
Hannah reached out to other high schools and middle schools in the Pikes Peak region and featured 162 pieces of art this school year. More than 500 people viewed the work.
The two shows raised nearly $3,200 to help Project Reasons create a mobile app and a video series, expand regionally and buy art supplies for AspenPointe, a local nonprofit mental health provider that offers a Creative Expressions art therapy group.
“I’ve seen a big change in our community and school district of everyone coming together and supporting our youth,” Hannah said. “After going through suicide after suicide, it’s inspiring to see everyone go from sad and confused to focused on building up each other and showing strength and camaraderie.”
So the art fundraiser can continue after she graduates in May, Hannah wrote a manual detailing the organizational process to produce the show.
Hannah’s best friend was supposed to graduate with her. Her suicide “was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” she said. “The biggest thing involving people who are suicidal and going through mental health issues is there’s so much ahead. It’s about reminding people of hope.”
Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.