UCCS hosts first El Paso County Suicide Prevention Conference

A recording of the Jan. 17 El Paso County Suicide Prevention Conference hosted by UCCS.

A crowd of 500 filled the Gallogly Events Center on Friday, Jan. 17 for the first El Paso County Suicide Prevention Conference with one topic in mind: reducing the number of deaths by suicide in El Paso County by 20% in the next five years.

Colorado consistently ranks in the top 10 states with the highest suicide rates, and El Paso County’s suicide rate tops even state levels. The national suicide rate in 2017 held steady at 14 deaths per every 100,000 individuals. Colorado’s was 20.3. El Paso County’s was 22.4.  

According to Sarah Brummett, director of the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention, no state in the country has ever succeeded in measurably reducing deaths by suicide. But through a community-centric approach led by the new El Paso County Suicide Prevention Task Force, formalized at the conference, she hopes Colorado might be the first.

Director of Mental Health Services Benek Altayli and Executive Director of Health and Wellness Stephanie Hanenberg were among panelists at the conference. Photo credit: Crayton Daniel.

“We have a history of islands of excellence – organizations doing great work, but isolated,” Brummett explained. “But this is a community issue. It is rooted in community and the solution lies in community as well.”

Over the course of the conference, 15 speakers and 10 panelists – many of them affiliated with UCCS – shared information about existing suicide prevention, intervention and postvention efforts with a goal of forming a communitywide public health approach to suicide prevention.

El Paso County joins five other counties – La Plata, Larimer, Mesa, Montezuma and Pueblo counties – in forming task forces to eliminate siloes in suicide prevention services, coordinate existing services and deploy prevention strategies for at-risk populations.

According to Brummett, “The idea of this project is, how do we boost what already exists, and really take it to scale in our community?”

Brummett highlighted that as the El Paso County Suicide Prevention Task Force selects strategies to implement in the community, they will prioritize data-driven strategies common across all six participating counties, which can then be evaluated for their effectiveness. The intent is to create a suicide prevention model so successful that it can create a blueprint for other states.

A crowd of 500 filled the Gallogly Events Center on Jan. 17. Photo credit: Crayton Daniel.

As Duane France of Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency explained, “This is not just a local effort. It is a state and federal effort, too…But it’s going to be up to us to do the work.”

Chief of the Fountain Police Department Christopher Heberer doubled down: “We’re here, and we can make a difference.”

Conference organized structured speakers around six pillars, each representing a preventative factor that can help preclude completed suicides. The pillars included connectedness with other people, economic stability, education and awareness, safe access to care, safety around lethal means such as firearms and drugs and proper postvention, which can help mitigate negative ripple effects after exposure to suicide.

Speaking on the importance of forming connections with those around you, David Galvan of Education for a Lifetime said that “connectedness requires action.” He encouraged participants to remind those around them that they are “needed, loved and valued.”

“When we have that understanding that we’re needed, loved and valued,” he said, “our behavior changes, and suicide becomes less of an option.”

Speakers on the topic of economic stability demonstrated that earning a living wage, being able to afford stable housing, having enough food in the house and having access to childcare are all preventative methods that can reduce attempted and completed suicide.

Beth Roalstad of Homeward Pikes Peak and Joel Siebersma of the Springs Rescue Mission spoke about the preventative effect of economic stability on attempted suicide rates. Photo credit: Crayton Daniel.

Erik Wallace, associate dean of the Colorado Springs Branch of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, spoke on the topic of access to lethal means. He pointed out that access to firearms is the number one contributing factor to completing a suicide.

“For every 100 people who attempt suicide by firearm, 90 will die. That’s compared to the two people who will die for every 100 who attempt suicide by drug overdose,” he explained.

He continued, “Reducing access to firearms to those who are at risk of attempting suicide is the most effective way to reduce the number of people who complete suicide.”

“What if the 90 people in El Paso County who completed suicide did not have access to a firearm at the time of their attempted suicide? It would have resulted in a 20% reduction in total suicides in El Paso County. What’s our goal? To reduce suicides in El Paso County by 20% by 2024.”

“If we did nothing else besides reduce access to highly lethal means,” he concluded, “we would reach our goal.”

Panelists smile at a fellow speaker. Photo credit: Crayton Daniel.

The conference concluded with a 10-person panel that included representatives from businesses, schools, hospitals, mental health organizations, law enforcement, military and veteran populations, the LGBTQ+ population and individuals with disabilities.

The panel highlighted that suicide rates are especially high for at-risk populations including veterans, service members and their families, the LGBTQ population, the disabled population and first responders, and linked participants to services already being provided in the community.

As far as next steps, the Community Health Partnership in Colorado Springs will form a work group to join efforts towards reducing suicide deaths by 20% in the county by 2024. Conference-goers will be invited to participate.

As France said in his concluding remarks, “This is just the beginning of the conversation. This is simply the first step in what we hope is a game-changing, paradigm-shifting way of looking at suicide prevention in our community.”

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