Editor’s Note: This article contains references to suicide and mental illness.
Most people my age who grew up in Colorado Springs have probably felt, or at the very least witnessed, the impact of suicide and mental illness in their day-to-day lives.
For years now Colorado has been nationally recognized for its high suicide rate, among other atrocities like its mass shootings and opioid overdoses.
In fact, according to the Colorado Health Institute, “The most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that in 2018, Colorado had one of the 10 highest age-adjusted suicide death rates in the nation, at 21.9 deaths per 100,000 people.”
The reality of suicide was something I became brutally aware of after multiple kids in my high school killed themselves. By the time I hit sophomore year, my classmates and I were given “mental health surveys” to fill out as a preventative measure — a measure that many schools in El Paso County were advised to take back in 2013, when youth suicide was on the rise.
In these surveys, we were asked “yes” or “no” questions about whether we had experienced or were experiencing symptoms of depression and suicidal ideation, and because we were raised in the conservative, predominantly white suburbs of Colorado Springs, most of us lied. We lied because we were scared to tell the truth.
Because of our dishonesty, many students struggling with suicidality in the D20 school district were not given the mental health care that they needed, as ten struggling students in a pool of hundreds of seemingly happy and well-adjusted students are incredibly easy to overlook.
In addition to its high suicide rate, Colorado Springs is known for its evangelical churches and communities, and at my school, Christianity was the standard. This made mental illness a forbidden topic to talk about despite the state’s efforts to bring it to the forefront.
The “trusted adults” at my school were so discomforted by the topic of mental health that they refused to follow the correct protocol when it came to suicide prevention and awareness.
One year, my math teacher put the incomplete mental health surveys back in the state-issued folder that they came from, proclaiming that the surveys were “a waste of time,” and we had too much to cover in class that day to bother with them.
This confirmed my worst suspicions: Struggling with mental illness was seen as a hassle in the eyes of my high school, not a real, genuine problem that needed to be addressed.
When my peers opened up to their parents and the school about feeling suicidal, they were not helped; they were ignored. Sometimes they would be taken out of class and brought to the school counselor’s office to talk about their feelings, only to be flooded by offers of help and assurance without actually receiving any.
When I was called out of class for the first time, I was terrified. I was made to feel scared and embarrassed by my struggles, not seen or heard. I was even told by one of my teachers that my grades were too good, and that kids with good grades often experienced symptoms of depression, and I should “call Safe2Tell if I ever feel like hurting myself or others.”
The main issue with this encounter was that I had never opened up to this teacher about my depressive thoughts in the first place, and I knew right then and there that my struggles were being talked about behind my back even after I was assured by my school counselor that what was said in her office stayed in her office.
The disappointing thing about going to school in Colorado Springs is that my experience with mental health was not an abnormality.
Most of the people in my life who went to a school in D20 faced similar treatment when opening up to their teachers and counselors about feeling depressed or suicidal, yet we continue to look shocked when we find out that the suicide rate in Colorado is astronomically higher than that of most states in the country.
The way that Colorado Springs handles suicide prevention and awareness desperately needs improvement. As a teacher or “trusted adult,” the way that you talk about suicide matters a lot to the kids you interact with everyday, especially in the conservative, predominantly white suburbs of Colorado.
According to KOAA News 5, a new suicide prevention plan is being introduced to El Paso county this year, “[and] will implement suicide prevention strategies in schools, businesses, military installations, and faith-based groups.”
My hope for suicide prevention in Colorado Springs going forward is that the stigma around mental health will dissipate. The best way to do this is by normalizing different identities that fall outside of the Christian, white majority.
In addition, the state of Colorado needs to adopt more effective protocols for suicide prevention. The safer students feel, the more likely they are to open up and seek help. Simple surveys and state-issued posters are not effective suicide prevention. Colorado Springs has to do better.