Suicide remains a leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24.
In Colorado, 995 young people ages 10 to 24 lost their lives to suicide between 2016 and 2020. Preventing the suicide of a young person is a priority for our schools, our behavioral health and healthcare providers, law enforcement, parents, and community members and many stakeholders have spent the past several years focused on this issue.
The League of Women Voters of the Uncompahgre Valley and The Center for Mental Health held a virtual community discussion centered on preventing youth suicides in our community on Nov. 10.
Laura Byard, Clinical Director at The Center for Mental Health, James Pavlich, executive director of operations, for the Montrose County School District Montrose Police Cmdr, Matt Smith highlighted the work in the schools and community which has occurred over the past three years to reduce the risk of suicide among our youth.
Colorado ranks fifth among states for the number of completed suicides per 100,000 residents, according to statistics Byard reviewed. She spoke about some of the risk factors that increase the likelihood of someone dying by suicide, including the higher risk of suicide among LGBTQ+ students if they are experiencing prejudice or discrimination, misuse and abuse of alcohol or drugs, access to lethal means such as guns or pills, isolation, and a history of trauma, bullying, or abuse.
Pavlich reminded participants that there is no one “type” of person who may be considering suicide, but many people struggle to acknowledge that they or a loved one are considering suicide.
“Every demographic of our community has youth who are struggling sometimes with thoughts of suicide and we’re still combating the stigma around it. We must get people past any shame that they might feel that one of their children is experiencing suicide ideation. Talking about this topic is one way to help reduce the risk among our youth,” he said.
According to Pavlich, while the initial impetus for addressing this topic came about after the Parkland school shooting and initially focused on threats to the school, “the more impactful work has been around addressing students when they are experiencing a mental health crisis and reducing the number of completed suicides and suicide attempts in our schools. We do three student risk assessments for suicide for every threat assessment we do.”
In 2019, staff from the Montrose School District, The Center, and the Montrose Police Department researched models used by other communities across the United States and chose to implement one used in the Salem-Keizer School District in Oregon.
“The West Colorado Student Threat Assessment Team is prevention focused, encourages collaboration from all involved agencies, uses a shared language across the team, and involves the student, family or guardians throughout the process,” Pavlich said.
Threat and risk assessment is an on-going process which works to increase the psychological safety of school staff, students, and their families, helps to provide supports to reduce suicides and violent acts by students, and safely returns students to school as quickly as possible following an incident.
“We can make really good decisions about what is best for the family. We share our knowledge of the situation and explore solutions that are best for the students and their families,” Smith said.
Since the fall of 2019, the school district has assessed 297 youth for suicide risk, 132 youth have been assessed for threats to others. During that same time, The Center has conducted 156 crisis assessments and 90 youth were admitted to the Crisis Stabilization Unit for additional supports. The program is available at no cost in all of the District schools, and Spanish speaking staff is present in all schools to assist the team assessing students who speak Spanish.
“The threat assessment team allows us to serve the whole child. We can take care of their mental health needs, their school needs, and can address their legal needs, if needed,” Byard said.
“It supports the whole child and the whole family.”
The school district currently contracts with The Center for two full-time mental health clinicians to work in the schools every day.
The panel also presented information on the state’s Safe2Tell program. This anonymous program, accessed — either through an app (available on Google Play or Apple App stores) or by telephone (1-877-542-7233), is available to students and community members to anonymously report concerns about students who may be at risk of harming themselves or others. School district staff and law enforcement respond to calls to this service 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“If a call is received at 11pm on a holiday, law enforcement will go out and check on the student, the school district will get text messages and phone calls and we’ll start the process to contact the student and his family to make sure that they are safe,” Pavlich said.
“The threat and risk assessment program allows us to get kids back to school sooner after they make a mistake with the proper supports. It provides a lot of supports for kids and helps us to really understand what is going on with the youth and the family.”
Smith encouraged people who are concerned about someone to act. “Call 911 and we’ll respond along with mental health professionals from The Center. And don’t be scared to have a tough conversation with someone that you think might be having a mental health concern or are thinking about suicide. It is so impactful,” he said.
Pavlich encouraged people to call the school district offices if they are concerned, or use Safe2Tell to report concerns.
“If you have a concern you need to report it. We have this process to ensure that the student gets help. This is the most important thing we do — to keep students safe. It takes a community effort to prevent suicides and our team works to keep students safe,” he said.
In addition to the work with the schools, The Center has clinicians trained to treat clients who are experiencing thoughts of suicide and it partners with law enforcement to respond with mental health clinicians alongside law enforcement when necessary. The Center also provides classes for community members to learn how to recognize the warning signs and help family members, friends, and colleagues who may be experiencing a mental health crisis.
In addition to offices across the six counties The Center services, The Center maintains an office in Montrose at 605 E. Miami Road, an office in Ridgway at 112 Village Square West, #201, and a Delta office at 107 W. 11th Street. New clients can visit the Montrose or Delta offices from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday to get started with services.
In addition, The Center operates a local support line (970.252.6220), as well as the Crisis Walk-In Center at 300 N. Cascade Ave. in Montrose for urgent behavioral health situations. These resources are available 24/7, 365 days per year, and all clients are accepted at the Crisis Walk-in Center regardless of their ability to pay.
If you, or someone you know, is living with suicidal ideation, waiting is not an option — your prompt response could save a life. Call The Center Support Line at 970.252.6220 or visit our Crisis Walk-in Center in Montrose, both open 24/7/365 days a year. The Colorado Crisis Services Line can also be reached at 1-844-493-TALK (8255) or text “Talk” to 38255.