Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect that the SEW Coalition meets on the second Monday of the month.

A group of Tri-Lakes community residents have banded together to form the Social and Emotional Wellness Coalition in an effort to stimulate conversation on the topic of youth mental health in the area.

Last year, Sheli Gray, a congregant at the Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church, felt hopeless in the aftermath of two student suicides in the area.

“I was heartbroken that our youth were hurting badly enough to believe that ending their lives was the best solution to their problems,” she said. “I realized that I couldn’t identify the signs of mental illness or whether my own daughters were struggling with thoughts of suicide.”

Gray wanted to take a step forward. In her email to two church friends, Sam Hastings and Nancy Fritzsche, she asked, “what can I do? I want to do something.”

Those words sparked a movement in the Tri-Lakes community. The suicide rate was rising, and Gray thought it was time to do something.

“It’s shockwaves through everyone, but you just feel like it’s almost like we’re in the cycle of this happens, we react and then we sort of move on,” said Sam Hastings, director of youth ministry and communications at TLUMC. “And then it happens again.”

Hastings was a part of a mental health coalition in Fort Collins before moving back to the Tri-Lakes area in 2016. Using that program as a guideline, the group got to work, and the SEW Coalition was born.

TLUMC connected with Heather Pelser, the Suicide Prevention Coordinator for El Paso and Pueblo counties. She introduced them to likeminded people at Lewis-Palmer School District 38 and Lewis-Palmer High School, including LPHS principal Bridget O’Connor, who oversees the school’s chapter of Sources of Strength, a nationally recognized, evidence-based suicide prevention program.

“We got together and brainstormed how we can come together as a community and try to solve it and work together,” O’Connor said. “We really wanted to coordinate all of our efforts, because our ultimate goal is that we don’t lose another youth in the community.”

The official public SEW Coalition meeting was held in April. Nearly 40 people attended.

“SEW Coalition continues to grow each month, gathering new parents, students, counselors and community activists,” Gray said.

While the coalition is still in its beginning stages, the group has created a mission statement and four work groups, which are all work toward creating goals and achieving their mission: to ensure that youth in the community who need mental health support will be seen and heard.

“I’ve just been blown away by how receptive people have been toward us,” Hastings said, “because I think everyone realizes the issue, but people really want to get on board to try to do something. And what we really are trying to do is to coordinate those efforts.”

Each meeting starts with an introduction of new faces and a feature presentation from a local organization involved in providing mental health services. Everyone then breaks into the four work groups for 45 minutes to brainstorm and create a plan for their topics.

Some projects in the works involve the creation of a database of mental health services offered in the area — including mapping them geographically and in terms of the services they offer and costs. Upon completion of the project, the SEW Coalition hopes to show all mental health services offered from Northgate/Air Force Academy area up to Castle Rock.

“We’re really going to accomplish something. We’re not going to just talk about it,” said Nancy Fritzsche, TLUMC’s education director.

Anyone interested in lending a hand to the cause is welcome to attend the SEW Coalition meetings. They are held from 6:30-8 p.m. on the second Monday of every month in the Distance Learning Lab at Lewis-Palmer High School, 1300 Higby Road, Monument (80132). To learn more, visit tlumc.org/outreach/social-emotional-wellness-sew-coalition.

“My hope is that through our work as a coalition, we can end the stigma of mental illness in our community while improving access to care,” Gray said. “Above all, I hope that we can empower young people with the social emotional skills they need to thrive in this world, knowing that they are supported and loved.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text National Alliance on Mental Illness Crisis Hotline: Text NAMI to 741-741 to speak with someone anytime 24/7. Locally, Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention offers a crisis line and community group. Call 1-844-493-TALK or text TALK to 38255 to speak with someone.

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