Uphill Battle 

Suicide stats rise while resources dwindle

In sixth grade, Matthew Bennett paid a classmate $20 to ask his friend, Raychel, to a school dance. At another dance in high school, one of Bennett's friends was mistreated by her date. Bennett called his dad and had him bring the girl flowers to make her feel better.

The sensitive 17-year-old Doherty High School student "was always trying to reach out to people to take some of their burden and pain," according to his father, Guy Bennett.

But for whatever reason, he seemed to absorb all of those pains and allowed the world's troubles to weigh heavily on his shoulders. And though he received treatment for depression, it wasn't enough.

Matthew Bennett hanged himself on Feb. 10, 2002. Shortly before, he had talked to his friends about suicide, but they didn't think he was serious.

"They looked at it as, 'He's got so much going for him, he'd never go through with it,'" said Matthew's mother, Jane Bennett.

Though Matthew never mentioned suicide to his parents, Guy and Jane Bennett now know the importance of friends and family taking such talk seriously. And they know that suicide can happen to any family, even to people who seemingly have everything going for them.

Hoping to help other families avoid what happened to them, the Bennetts now give presentations to teachers, parents and students in area schools through SAFE:TEEN, an awareness program headed up by the El Paso County Health Department and the Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention Partnership, a local advocacy group.

But they are fighting a seemingly uphill battle. In 2001, officially reported suicides in El Paso County reached an all-time high of 95. Though the number dropped to 85 last year, that was still the second-highest ever. And the picture for 2003 is beginning to look grim: In the first three months of this year, 27 county residents killed themselves. That's a 50-percent increase over the same period last year, when 18 suicides were reported.

Moreover, the increase comes at a time when the Health Department is facing shrinking budgets and the Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention Partnership is struggling with decreased donations.

"We are, at the present time, in dire need," said Herman Delgado, the partnership's director. "It's serious at this point."

A nonprofit group started 10 years ago, the partnership helps organize preventive outreach programs in schools, churches, senior centers and other places. It also operates a suicide crisis hotline and coordinates Heartbeat, a support group for people who have lost a family member to suicide.

Delgado speculates that recent increases in suicides might be fueled by heightened anxiety since Sept. 11, 2001 -- exacerbated by the recent war in Iraq -- and most significantly, the poor economy.

At the same time, the economic downturn has caused charitable grants and donations to dry up, Delgado says. The Suicide Prevention Partnership relies almost entirely on private contributions; its only government funding is a $15,000 annual grant from El Paso County.

The Bennetts are hoping for continued support for the Partnership. Their participation in Heartbeat helps them heal, but most importantly, they believe in educating people through programs such as SAFE:TEEN.

Long a taboo subject, suicide is too significant an epidemic to keep quiet about, the Bennetts say.

"Silence," said Jane Bennett, "will do nothing."

-- Terje Langeland


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