Colorado is not immune from this unfortunate trend. The state's last annual report on suicide rates, released in November, shows that numbers in Colorado have increased year by year since 2009. The report includes this sobering description: “In 2016, Colorado recorded the highest number of suicide deaths to date (1,156 deaths) with a corresponding age-adjusted rate of 20.3/100,000. In 2015, the most recent year of data available nationally, Colorado ranked ninth for highest suicide rate in the United States, and is consistently among the top ten states with the highest suicide rates.”
But there's also a lot of hope and inspiring work being done in Colorado around suicide prevention. The state has had an Office of Suicide Prevention since 2000, and recently that office has been spearheading some of the most innovative work in the nation to combat suicide.
Sarah Brummett, director of Colorado's Office of Suicide Prevention, says that her office has recently given grants of $10,000 to $20,000 to numerous suicide-prevention pilot programs, including youth programs at schools; a “Man Therapy” initiative aimed at male, blue-collar workers; efforts at hospitals; and even outreach to gun shops and gun ranges.
That last initiative, the Colorado Gun Shop Project, recognizes that firearms account for nearly half of all suicide deaths in Colorado, and that one way to reduce those numbers is to get the firearms community involved in suicide prevention.
“At the heart of it, it's an education and awareness campaign. There's information for shops and ranges to have for their employees and also for customers,” explains Brummett. “These are firearm advocates from the community who are comfortable with that world, but also get suicide prevention. So there's less hesitancy, because the [suicide prevention efforts] are not coming from the state or someone outside the firearms community. There's a higher level of trust. It's not about gun control or a restriction on ownership or forced seizure of anyone's property; it's about how the firearms community can support each other.”
Just as Colorado is thinking outside the box for ways to engage that community, Brummett says her office has been considering how it can prevent crisis in the first place. She calls this “upstream prevention."
"Our office is under the Department of Public Health and Environment, along with other offices focused on opioid addiction, marijuana retail work and reducing child fatalities. And rather than be in our own lanes, we’re all working together across our health topics so we can elevate the overall health of the community,” Brummett says. “And we’re all working farther upstream before things get to the point of crisis where someone is experiencing an overdose, or a suicide attempt, or maltreatment. If we can get ahead of these things, the idea is that all boats rise with the tide. It does take longer for that work to show its results, but if you're just doing intervention — which is still incredibly important — you're never going to see a change in the numbers."
In schools, that means uplifting youth through the Sources of Strength program, which pairs students with adult role models and promotes discussions among students about healthy ways to cope with anger, depression and anxiety. Brummett says the state has funded the program in 120 schools.
But the director laments the lack of funding to take such programs statewide. Brummett points out that 120 participating schools is great, “but there [are] 1,800 schools in Colorado, so you can see with saturation rates that we're not really there yet."
Brummett also recognizes a unique challenge in Colorado that isn’t necessarily present in other parts of the country: a streak of rugged, even stubborn, individualism. “Colorado is an amazing state and draws people from all over the country. But in Colorado, we have this value to not tell someone how to do their job, or how to live,” Brummett observes. “So certainly, with the topic of suicide and mental health, it can really work against us when there is isolation and loss of a sense of belonging. That’s part of that recipe for suicide risk."
National organizations, including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, have recognized the work being done in Colorado and have helped provide funding for the Colorado National Collaborative, an effort to pilot prevention programs in communities with high suicide rates and create models that can be implemented in other states.
The collaborative has identified six counties in Colorado — El Paso, Pueblo, Larimer, Mesa, Montezuma and La Plata — that are willing to tackle suicide prevention on all fronts. “This comprehensive community strategy has to involve everyone: the mental health providers, the local public health department, hospitals, schools, the local faith community, veteran-serving organizations, you name it,” says Brummett. “Our goal is to have a centralized meeting from representatives from all six counties in September. And there's certainly a lot of pressure on us, but also a lot of hope, because there's such momentum and passion around this issue in Colorado that I think we're reaching that tipping point."
Brummett is clear-eyed about the rising rate of suicide in Colorado, but maintains an air of optimism.
"There's usually a buzz when our data comes out each year, and then people stop talking about it, which I think is the frustrating part for us, because families don't stop losing loved ones to suicide because it's not a topic du jour anymore. I think it's hard for our community partners who are working tirelessly, and most of them have come to the issue because they've lost someone and are working for the state of Colorado to make sure no other families join that club," Brummett says. “But at the same time, there are daily stories of hope and resilience, and those are what I turn to, because people can get past this, and the majority of folks who have experienced an attempt go on and don't die by suicide. That keeps us going.”
If you need help, call the national suicide prevention lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Colorado crisis and support line, 1-844-493-TALK (8255), to be connected 24/7 to a trained counselor at a crisis center in your area.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.