With two years of data showing a decline in teen suicides in El Paso County from a historic high in 2016, public health officials are hopeful the new numbers signify a positive trend.
Nine area youths ages 17 and under, one 18-year-old high school student and three other 18-year-olds not connected to a local school district died by suicide in 2019, according to Dr. Leon Kelly, county coroner and chief medical examiner.
Though last year’s tally reflects a slight increase over 2018, when seven adolescents ages 17 and younger took their lives, Kelly said it’s a marked improvement from a few years ago, when El Paso County was in the national spotlight for its alarmingly high rates.
“While nine suicides is nine too many, we are seeing continued improvement in our fatality totals compared to the years of 2015-2017, where we saw 14 deaths per year on average,” Kelly said.
The first teen suicide of 2020 occurred on Jan. 7, when a 16-year-old Colorado Springs boy took his life.
Agencies track completed suicides by age groups. The El Paso County Coroner’s Office breaks down the first age group into 17 and younger. The high among that demographic occurred in 2016, when the office recorded 15 completed suicides.
A report released one year ago by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office determined death by suicide among 19- to 24-year-olds in El Paso County has been declining since reaching a high in 2014, but completions doubled among teens 18 and under, from 24 in 2012-2014 to 48 in 2015-2017.
The study pinpointed contributing factors as desensitization to the value of life, a large disconnect between today’s teens and adults, cyberbullying and pressure to perform academically, socially and athletically.
In response, local schools have significantly increased programs related to students’ social/emotional health, with speakers, seminars and other education for parents, staff and students.
After being elected as county coroner in November 2018, Kelly began charting which school districts teens were attending at the time of their death.
In 2019, six males and three females age 17 or under died by suicide; six used firearms and three deaths were attributed to hanging, according to Kelly.
Of those teens connected to a school district who died by suicide in 2019, including the 18-year-old, six were attending Colorado Springs School District 11, one was a student in Widefield School District 3, one in Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 and two were at School District 49, based in Peyton.
The region’s seven teen suicide deaths in 2018 represented one in D-11, one in D-12, one in D-49, one in Academy School District 20, two in Lewis-Palmer School District 38 and one from Castle Rock RE-1’s middle school.
“The continued tragic loss of life in our youth by their own hands is a reminder that while we’ve made incredible strides in how we approach our young people about their mental health and are seeing the positive results, we must continue to be vigilant and focused in our communitywide efforts,” Kelly said.
Last weekend, Children’s Hospital Colorado in Colorado Springs kicked off an experimental, voluntary program at an elementary school in D-11 and a middle school in D-20, which uses one-on-one motivational health coaches to build child resiliency and monitor health behaviors such as diet, activity, sleep and screen time.
The Coroner’s Office won’t have statistics for 2019 suicides for other age groups until this spring, Kelly said.
The latest statistics on juvenile deaths comes on the eve of a kickoff of a new countywide suicide prevention effort.
The First Annual El Paso County Suicide Prevention Conference: A Call to Action will be held Friday at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
About 500 people representing 120 organizations, from law enforcement and elected officials to concerned parents and mental health professionals, have registered to attend, said Duane France, one of the organizers.
Registration has ended, but the event will be livestreamed at tinyurl.com/uccsconference. Speakers start at 8:30 a.m., followed by a panel that concludes around 1 p.m.
Suicide prevention experts from the state and local levels will address the scope of the problem among all age levels and discuss building connectedness, providing education and awareness, reaching economic stability, safety involving methods and assistance following a completed suicide.
In 2018, a coalition of national partners asked Colorado to form the Colorado National Collaborative for Suicide Prevention — a federal, state and local partnership to address suicide using a public health approach.
El Paso is one of six counties selected to participate, with the new task force behind the conference growing out of the program, said France, who works as director of veteran services at the Family Care Center and executive director of the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency.
The state’s Office of Suicide Prevention and the local task force have set a goal of creating a comprehensive suicide prevention model and reducing suicide by 20% from 2018 to 2024, according to France.
In 2018, the rate of suicide in Colorado among all ages was 21.9 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people, the highest rate since 2004.
El Paso County’s starting point will be the 2018 rate of 21.4 deaths per 100,000. That number is a reduction from the county’s highest rate of 27.0 deaths in 2016.
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