While death by suicide among 19- to 24-year-olds in El Paso County has been declining since reaching a high in 2014, the number doubled among those 18 and under, according to a study Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman released Thursday.
Suicide deaths in the 10-18 age group jumped from 24 in 2012-2014 to 48 in 2015-2017. Contributing factors, the study said, included desensitization to the value of life, a large gap between today’s teens and adults, cyber bullying and pressure to perform.
Nearly half of El Paso County teens age 18 and under who have taken their lives used a gun, according to the data.
In releasing the findings of the study, “Community Conversations to Inform Youth Suicide Prevention,” Coffman called death by suicide “a public health crisis” that “too many families in our state have faced.”
Colorado consistently ranks among the top 10 states with the highest suicide rates. More Coloradans die by suicide than by homicide, motor vehicle crash, diabetes and breast cancer, Coffman said, and it is the second-leading cause of death for ages 10-34.
The $173,000 study, funded by the Attorney General’s Office and conducted by Health Management Associates, began in December 2017.
The process included focus groups, community input and data to analyze and characterize trends and patterns in fatal and nonfatal suicidal behaviors among young people in the four Colorado counties with the highest rates of youth suicide: El Paso, La Plata, Mesa and Pueblo.
Coffman said in a news release she hopes that the information will “shed light on the very real impact of suicide loss” and help provide “coordinated and comprehensive prevention efforts going forward.”
El Paso County Public Health will use the report to “find ways to align efforts and work together in solidarity to address a complex issue,” said Meghan Haynes, Teen Suicide Prevention Planner for El Paso County Public Health.
The report highlights similarities among the four counties that were studied, such as the three risk factors most often cited: poor employment and lack of economic opportunities for residents, the use of social media and technology among youth, and a lack of coping skills or resilience among youths in the face of challenges.
Protective factors also were consistent among the four counties, including increased school-based mental health support services, extracurricular activities such as sports or clubs, increased collaborative efforts of the public health departments and more cooperation across agencies.
Preventing youth access to firearms also was cited as a protective measure — 46.2 percent of age 18 and under El Paso County teens who died by suicide from 2012 to 2017 used a firearm, as did 53.6 percent of those in the 19-24 age group.
Nearly all of the El Paso County youths who committed suicide had one or more known life circumstances, with the top three being depression, a crisis in the past two weeks and a family relationship problem.
Suicides of a family member, a loved one or a close friend also stood out among participants of focus groups as influencing teen suicide.
“That gives us an opportunity to step back and make sure we understand how deaths by suicide are impacting other people,” Haynes said.
Among the recommendations: increasing access to pro-social activities and supportive environments, which El Paso County Public Health will discuss with its community partners.
“We can only keep our kids safe if we’re keeping other members of our community safe,” Haynes said, “so we’ll ramp up efforts to address adult suicide.”
The health department started a Youth Suicide Prevention Work Group in July 2016, after a spike of teen suicides in El Paso County. The group now encompasses 60 community partner agencies and 20 community members and parents who meet monthly.
A community action plan addressing several of the recommendations from this most recent report already is in place and will be modified, said Kelsey Leva, Youth Health and Development Planner.
“The recommendations going forward outlined in the study affirm our goals and match well,” she said. The first one — “prioritize relationship building between adults and youth” — is an initiative that’s already underway.
Youths are turning to their peers first and primarily for help with their problems, the study results show. However, in communities where the pressure to be successful is highest, youth participants said that they do not seek help from anyone. They also described that, increasingly, when youths are worried about a friend they will seek help from adults.
Teens are using the Attorney General Office’s Safe2Tell hotline to alert authorities when they believe someone needs help, the report noted, with youth suicide intervention being the No. 1 type of tip received for the past four years.
The full report can be found at https://coag.gov/sites/default/files/final_youth_suicide_in_colorado_report_10.01.18.pdf.
Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.