Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser touted El Paso County’s two-year-old Suicide Prevention Collaborative Tuesday, saying he hopes more communities unite under a similar collective structure to reduce deaths by suicide.

“This is going to be a model for Colorado,” Weiser said at a press conference outside the offices of Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention Partnership on North Tejon Street.

El Paso is one of six Colorado counties identified in 2018 as having high suicide rates and therefore selected to participate in the Colorado-National Collaborative for Suicide Prevention.

The large-scale effort involves local, state and national scientists and public health officials working with health and social service agencies, nonprofit organizations, government offices, businesses, academic leaders and other residents to create and enact strategies to prevent suicide.

From 2015 to 2020, El Paso County recorded more deaths by suicide than any of Colorado's 63 other counties, according to data.

The goal for participating counties, which also include Pueblo, Montezuma, La Plata, Mesa and Larimer, is to decrease deaths by suicide by 20% by 2024.

Suicide fatalities hit a record high in El Paso County in 2019, with 180 deaths. During the pandemic, the number stayed roughly the same, with 178 deaths by suicide in 2020 and running “flat” again last year, according to preliminary numbers from the El Paso County Coroner’s Office.

However, after tying 2016's record high in 2020 of 15 suicide deaths among teens ages 11-17, El Paso County marked a significant decline last year, with just four youths under age 18 taking their lives, the coroner’s office reports.

It’s too early to declare a trend, said Jessie Pocock, executive director of Inside Out Youth Services, which provides programs for LGBTQ+ teens.

“When we see a reduction, we need to continue to invest in what’s working and not divest of that,” she said. “Every life lost from suicide is too many."

She's one of about 60 members of the Suicide Prevention Collaborative of El Paso County that Weiser lauded.

"The collective’s efforts to bring together folks from across the community is building toward prevention," Pocock said. "It’s the most coordinated effort we’ve seen, and that is meaningful and will have long-term impact.”

The collaborative, a project of Community Health Partners, is impressive, she said, because it unifies residents “across the spectrum” to put their heads together to stop suicide, including recognizing high-risk populations, such as LGBTQ+ people.

“I like its rootedness in data and facts about best practices for prevention,” Pocock said. “It’s been useful in getting more inclusive policies for mental health for LGBTQ+ people.”

The collective has reached the next level of work and is calling on all residents to learn the warning signs and best ways to respond to people in distress who might be thinking about self-harm, said Cassandra Walton, executive director of Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention Partnership.

“We want everyone to realize suicide prevention is everybody’s business — everyone has a part to play,” she said.

The collaborative also is promoting safe gun storage, since more than half of El Paso County suicide deaths are completed using a firearm — which is shown to more likely be fatal than other methods.

“Between the ages of 12 and 24, we lose more young people to suicide than any other cause of death,” Weiser said.

Threats and concerns about suicide remain the top-reported tip to the state’s anonymous hotline for students, Safe2Tell, a program Weiser’s office oversees.

“We have to do more to destigmatize suicide,” Weiser said. “This is a public health emergency, that’s not my words, that’s what the Surgeon General said about teen mental health, in particular.”

Normalizing mental health is one way to raise awareness and save lives, he said.

“Years ago, there was a stigma about talking about cancer. Today people say cancer sucks, I’m struggling with cancer, but people don’t say it sucks to struggle with depression or anxiety," Weiser said. "Out of this pandemic, we know how many people are struggling. We have to be there for them.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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