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January 29, 2020 News » Cover Story

El Paso County schools shift focus toward mental wellness 

HEALTHY MINDS, HEALTHY SCHOOLS

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  • Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock.com

Each generation comes with its own set of opportunities and challenges. High schoolers today, for instance, have a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips, having been born after the advent of the internet. But growing up in 2020 is anything but easy.

Between 2015 and 2017, an average of 14 El Paso County children between the ages of 10 and 17 died by suicide each year, according to data from the county’s Child Fatality Review Team.

“A typical year, historically, in that age group, was four to seven cases, and then we suddenly jumped up to 14 cases and then 15 cases the next year and then down to 13,” County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly says.

But 2018 offered a glimmer of hope, as the trend began to reverse. We had seven youth suicides that year, and then nine in 2019.

There’s another promising sign. In the past two years, the county hasn’t experienced as many “clusters” of suicides, which can occur when one person completes suicide and others quickly follow within days or weeks, Kelly says.

“That’s a key area where the community and the schools in particular have improved,” he explains. “Much of what we saw during our worst years were clusters. They were multiple kids who knew each other who died by suicide ... where clearly the death of one child affected in some capacity why the next child ended their life.”

But the fight is far from over.

“The improvement in the numbers is reassurance that we are moving in the right direction, but we are not there yet,” Kelly says. “...Because while nine is better than 14 or 15, nine is still nine, right. Nine is still nine teenagers at the earliest stage of their life who are no longer with us.”

It’s impossible to attribute the decrease to any one factor, but in recent years, the county’s Youth Suicide Prevention Workgroup (co-founded by Kelly) has been implementing prevention efforts based on recommendations from a range of groups that work with young people. Many of those efforts start at school. 

Notably, mental health isn’t just about suicide prevention: Young people face a host of pressures and for some, mental disorders often first appear in the late teenage years and early 20s.

For this issue, we looked to our community’s educators, care providers, teachers and parents to learn about the unique struggles students face, new strategies to approaching mental health at school, and the resources available for kids and parents in our community — which include free classes hosted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Colorado Springs.

Anyone experiencing a mental health crisis can call the Colorado Crisis Services Hotline at 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255 to speak with a trained counselor. For in-person, immediate help 24 hours a day, visit the crisis stabilization center at 115 S. Parkside Drive.


For better or worse, our mental and emotional experiences during childhood can have lasting effects on our personalities, coping skills and relationships.

A growing recognition that schools play a crucial role in helping students learn to navigate those experiences has transformed the way we think about education.

Within the last several years, most states have implemented a set of principles of social and emotional learning, a framework developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in the 1990s.

According to CASEL’s website: “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

With social and emotional learning, kids “are less likely to have anxiety and depression,” says Martha Hinson, health and wellness specialist at Academy District 20. “They’re less likely to have substance abuse issues or aggressiveness or any other conduct disorders, and therefore they are more connected and they thrive.”

The benefits of social and emotional learning extend beyond mental health, and even beyond boosting grades, test scores and graduation rates. For example, a 2015 report by Columbia University’s Teachers College found that every $1 invested in social and emotional learning programs returned $11 in societal benefits — including reduced juvenile crime, higher lifetime earnings, and improved mental and physical health.

Bret Wright, a middle-school language and literature teacher at Discovery Canyon Campus, says that teaching social and emotional skills doesn’t take away from academics: “I think it’s just as important, if not more,” he says.

Mental health stressors for today’s students include social media, Wright says, but more than that: 

“I think as a culture, we need to look at parents, teacher expectations, peer expectations… There’s a lot of pressure there looking toward four-year colleges and scholarships,” he says. “I’ve never ever in my life seen so many middle-school kids injured playing competitive sports for the purpose of getting into college. You know, I think that’s a lot of pressure. I think that we need to allow kids to be kids more.”

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Wright taught my language arts class a decade ago at DCC, a District 20 school that enrolls students from preschool through 12th grade.

Much has changed since then. 

Between late 2015 and summer 2016, DCC lost five students to suicide. Spring 2016 wasn’t the first semester DCC experienced tragedy, and it wasn’t the last, but it was perhaps the semester that things really started to change.

With the help of some grant funding, DCC began implementing the Sources of Strength suicide prevention program. Developed in North Dakota in 1998, Sources of Strength involves training adult advisors and recruiting “peer leaders” — students from each social group who serve as role models to their friends.

DCC implemented the Signs of Suicide program to help teach middle and high schoolers about how to recognize when they or their friends needed help, and how to seek assistance from a trusted mentor.

Through these and other changes, the school slowly but surely began to see results, says Kim Severn, a former counselor at DCC who’s now a counseling and human services instructor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

“I think Sources of Strength had a lot to do with DCC’s healing,” Severn says. “I don’t know that every student would agree with me on that, but I think for the most part ... we started talking about [suicide] in a more healthy way.”

One of the most important pieces, she says, was developing relationships between students and teachers or other trusted adults “so that if they were going through something, a rough time, they felt like they could reach out and get some help.”

Wright agrees that the new programs have had a positive effect on school climate, but he would like to see more mental health supports for teachers, too.

“Teachers take on a lot of that emotional weight when the kids are hurting,” he says, “and there were a number of teachers who either left the profession because it was too much or had to seek therapy, professional help, the support of their colleagues ... to get through that time as well. It takes a toll on everybody.”

Today, five middle schools and six high schools in District 20 are using the Sources of Strength framework, according to district spokesperson Allison Cortez. The program training costs are expensive, but the district secured funding through state and local grants.

Hinson, the district’s health and wellness specialist, is part of a statewide collaborative team for Sources of Strength. She says she’s heard of positive outcomes outside the district as well.

“What we’re seeing is a major increase in help-seeking behaviors by youth — that they are seeking help [for mental health needs], that they’re going to a trusted adult, they’re going to another peer and being connected to help,” Hinson says. “And that’s huge because that’s how we identify and that’s how we can intervene early and truly make a difference.”

Another important strategy for improving mental health has been Youth Mental Health First Aid, Cortez adds. That program is a full-day course for teachers and staff on how to help young people experiencing problems related to mental health or substance use.

The district has trained more than 700 staff members and 150 parents in Youth Mental Health First Aid within the past two years, Cortez says.


District 20 wasn’t the only local school district affected by the rise in youth suicide, and other districts in the area have increased their efforts to address youth mental health. Colorado Springs School District 11, the county’s second-largest district (based on enrollment), recently implemented a crisis response team — composed of school psychologists, social workers and counselors — to help students heal from trauma caused by losing classmates to suicide.

Mental health providers say having such resources in place for “postvention” is crucial for reducing suicide rates.

District 11 uses a Multi-Tiered System of Supports, which is a “prevention-based framework for advancing academic and behavioral outcomes while cultivating the social and emotional wellness of every student,” according to the district’s website.

In the past year, Harrison School District 2 has reached the level of having at least one counselor in each of it schools, says Jennica Mabe, the district’s counseling coordinator. The district has also made it a priority to train other staff members in Youth Mental Health First Aid.

With this training, “you could be ... a bus driver or the crossing walk guard, or a teacher, custodian, any of our security, and anyone ... could make a connection with a student and then also be able to recognize when the student is not OK,” Mabe says.

Mabe also believes a new partnership between District 2 and Pikes Peak Community College, while not explicitly directed at mental health, could do wonders for students’ overall well-being. Through the Dakota Promise Scholarship, students graduating from the district with a GPA of at least 2.5 can qualify for free tuition and books for two years at PPCC.

“I think some of the kids in southern Colorado Springs are the most resilient kids in this area because of the trauma and the things that they’ve had to overcome,” Mabe says. “Helping them just really grasp the mindset that they can do it, that they’re worth it, [that] the people around them want to support them [is crucial].”

At the state level, lawmakers are also paying more attention to mental health — though Colorado historically ranks in the lower third of states for per-pupil education dollars from the state budget.

Legislation passed in the last several years made grant funding available for schools to hire mental health professionals. 

Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8, for example, has been able to leverage state School Health Professionals grant funding — $168,000 over three years — in order to hire additional mental health staff.

That grant program uses money from marijuana taxes to pay for mental health and substance use counselors and providers, and to provide training for students and staff on behavioral health issues.

District 8 currently has 43 school counselors, school psychologists and social workers on staff, according to Lisa Zimprich, the district’s director of special education. Six of those staff members were hired in the last three years or so.

“We have as a district embraced the idea of the ‘whole child’ approach,” Zimprich says. “... It is our job to support all aspects of a student’s life in order for them to be successful.”

To that end, the district works with community partners like AspenPointe and Communities that Care for student mental health and substance use prevention. Trauma-informed care — which considers students’ past experience and triggers — is an important part of the approach, Zimprich says.

Meanwhile, District 11 and District 2’s Atlas Elementary were selected to participate in another state pilot program created by legislation passed last year.

The K-5 Social and Emotional Health Pilot Program will place mental health professionals in elementary schools. Schools participating in the program must hire one mental health professional per grade level to follow the students as they advance through each grade.

That person will conduct behavior assessments, develop behavior intervention plans and, if necessary, arrange for students to receive additional counseling or therapy outside the school. This could include referrals for the student’s family and household as well.

The program uses funds from marijuana taxes along with grants and private donations.

But more general fund dollars for mental health resources in Colorado’s schools could be coming down the pipeline. This January, for example, state Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, introduced a bill that would expand behavioral health training for educators from kindergarten through 12th grade. 

Senate Bill 20 would require the Legislature to allocate $1 million annually, for the next three years, from the state’s general fund for training educators in trauma-informed approaches to improving school climate, how to identify mental health and substance use disorders, bullying prevention and intervention, and more.

When it comes to improving student mental health, education researchers say that progress is impossible without considering students’ past trauma and diverse life experiences.

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Few people understand this better than the team at Inside Out Youth Services, a Colorado Springs nonprofit serving LGBTQ young people.

According to the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, 44.8 percent of Colorado students who reported being lesbian, gay or bisexual said they’d seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months, compared with 13.2 percent of heterosexual students.

For transgender youths, the gap was even larger: 58.9 percent had seriously considered suicide in the past year, compared with 16.3 percent of cisgender kids.

It’s important to remember that the mental health disparities experienced by LGBTQ children don’t stem from their sexual or gender identity, says Inside Out Executive Director Jessie Pocock.

“These disparities exist not because these young people are LGBT, but rather it’s a product of growing up LGBT in a community of discrimination and bias and harassment,” Pocock says. “[With] social rejections at the institutional level and also down to the individual, maybe family or friend level, there’s just a lot of stress that happens.”

On top of those stressors, about one in every three kids who receive services at Inside Out are experiencing homelessness, Pocock says — and when basic needs such as food and shelter go unmet, mental health worsens.

“LGBT youth of color are experiencing these issues and even more significant issues due to racism and the discrimination they face being queer and non-white,” she adds. “So those are some compounding issues that we see here impacting mental health, impacting access to resources and economic security.”

This year, the nonprofit brought on a clinician to provide youths with free therapy, Pocock says. Inside Out’s other services include a “trusted adult” training program to help build relationships between young people and adults, anti-violence and anti-bullying work that involves making recommendations to school administrators on improving safety for LGBTQ students, support groups led by LGBTQ adults, community meals and more.

A study at the University of Texas showed that having the ability to go by preferred pronouns and preferred names corresponded in a 65 percent decrease in suicide attempts for transgender youth.

In the classroom, steps like making sure rosters list preferred names and pronouns could have a profound effect on student mental health, Pocock says. She also recommends schools have gender-neutral restrooms that are easily accessible.

Despite the community’s increasing acceptance of the LGBTQ community, Pocock says there’s still a great deal of work to be done.

“It’s just so important at a basic level to provide competent, culturally relevant support for mental health outcomes so that these young people can thrive,” she says. “And right now, the fact of the matter is they are not. ... We know that our LGBTQ youth are dealing with significant gaps in health outcomes.”

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