Suicide deaths in El Paso County are running even with last year, but that’s not necessarily good news, Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly noted.
The county had what was thought to be record-high suicides in 2019, according to Kelly's data. The 180 suicide deaths reflected an 18% increase over the 152 in 2018. El Paso County led the state last year, posting a rate of 13.9 suicides per 100,000 in population, compared with 10.5 statewide and 5.73 for Denver County.
"It’s discouraging that we are at last year’s pace with many challenges still ahead for 2020 and beyond,” Kelly said Tuesday as National Suicide Prevention Week got underway.
From January through August, 126 people in El Paso County died by suicide, compared with 127 over the same period in 2019, the coroner's office data show.
Kelly was hoping for a decrease this year, but given the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic, the lack of a significant difference in the numbers can be viewed as encouraging, he said.
“Thus far, we have not seen an effect on our completed suicides, suggesting that despite the challenges we have collectively faced, the resources and community are responding to help folks struggling,” he said.
The coroner’s office has identified 12 suicide cases linked directly to the pandemic, with loss of work, death or illness of a loved one, and fear or uncertainty having a role in the despair.
“Obviously, there may be more than that who did not express that sentiment, but it was an underlying driving force,” Kelly said.
One demographic group showing an increase in suicides is children age 17 and younger, data show. Nine teens completed suicide through August, compared with six teens in the first eight months of last year.
Some of the most common risk factors among all ages are recently ended relationships, a personal health crisis, financial struggles or the death of a loved one, Kelly said. Social media also can be a negative contributor for adolescents, with bullying, name-calling and ganging up online, said Joanne DeBrito, a licensed clinical social worker at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs.
Suicide threats continue to be the top issue on the statewide Safe2Tell safety reporting line, following by cyberbullying and COVID-19 concerns, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser reported Tuesday.
Watching for indicators of suicide is even more crucial now, professionals say.
“Any time you have any sort of crisis, what’s going on already with someone with their physical or mental health is likely to get worse,” said DeBrito, one of the creators of Focus on the Family’s free online Alive to Thrive suicide prevention program.
More than six months into the pandemic, a large portion of life still has not returned to what was familiar. Behaviors DeBrito calls natural anti-depressants are missing, including having physical closeness and face-to-face interaction, getting adequate exercise, spending more time outdoors and getting enough sleep.
Pandemic restrictions that have removed or lessened the ability to hang out with friends, attend public events and participate in other activities can be devastating, DeBrito said.
Additionally, “We have a generation of kids that seem less able to cope with the kinds of disappointments that come with life," she said.
And while short-term isolation can be good for introspection and rebooting, long-term isolation can be detrimental, leading to or exacerbating loneliness, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, DeBrito said.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey conducted in June showed 31% of 5,400 respondents reported symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder and 13% started or increased substance use to cope.
Overall, one in 10 respondents reported having seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days. The percentage rose to one in four for respondents aged 18 to 24 years old and one in five for essential workers.
Peer support is a key in prevention measures, experts said.
Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention is fielding more calls from parents inquiring about resources for adult children who have been displaced from their jobs, homes, colleges or significant relationships, the organization's executive director Cassandra Walton said, adding those displacements "all increase the risk for suicide."
As a result, the organization’s peer-support services, connecting youth and adults with others in their age group facing the same challenges, have become the most popular resource offered, Walton said.
A new social media campaign, Beyond the Curve, a suicide prevention program created by local teens for teens, is creating ads on Instagram and Facebook that have been delivered more than 267,000 times to funnel users to the website, where the average visitor spends more than two minutes looking at the material, Melissa Hansen, project manager for Community Health Partnership, said.
“For us, this was a huge success and spoke directly to the importance of having content for youth made with input from our county’s youth,” Hansen said.
During September’s National Suicide Prevention Month, Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention is promoting small things people can do every day to help prevent suicide, Walton said. Calling a friend, relative, neighbor or acquaintance you haven’t spoken to in a while to see how they’re doing, offering to accompany someone to a support group, going on a walk or hike with a few people who might be in need of companionship and offering to run an errand for someone are among the ideas.
Asking if someone is thinking about suicide is another suggestion, DeBrito said.
“Because the language of suicide is very much incorporated into our society because of its prevalence, we should not be afraid to ask this question,” she said.
“I’m old enough to know that this, too, shall pass but for someone who this is their first experience like this, it can feel hopeless,” DeBrito said. “You don’t have to be a mental health professional to encourage people and allow them to talk.”
Eric Holmes, who works for Mobile Transport Repair, recently participated in a training provided by Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention.
“A lot of it is knowing what to look for,” he said. “It’s not always apparent or obvious when someone is in pain. My advice is to keep an eye open.”
Anyone needing assistance can call the local prevention office at 573-7447, or the Colorado Crisis Service line, 844-493-8255, or text “talk” to 38255.