Lawmakers took a small step toward expanding suicide prevention efforts in Colorado schools before the end of the 2018 session.

A bipartisan bill that’s headed to the governor’s desk allocates $400,000 for small grants of between $5,000 and $10,000 to schools to train staff in suicide prevention.

This modest yet hard-won bill is the only legislation this year that directly addresses the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24 in Colorado. When the session started, many people were still shaken by the news that an Aurora fifth-grader had taken her own life, news that came on the heels of several suicides by teenagers at suburban high schools.

Even as the state legislature made progress on other behavioral health bills, efforts to address youth suicide were thwarted by religious conservatives who see those efforts as impinging on parental rights. 

The grants bill is very similar to a bill that was voted down in a Senate committee early in the session, with a key difference. In the defeated bill, grants could also be used to train students to help their peers. In the later bill, the training is limited to adults.

The bill’s Senate sponsors, Republican Beth Martinez Humenik of Thornton and Democrat Nancy Todd of Aurora, say this was the compromise necessary to get the bill through the Republican-controlled Senate.

Both women have close personal experience with the suicide of young people and feel strongly that the state needs to do more. Like other Western states, Colorado has a suicide rate that is higher than the national average. Young people in rural counties commit suicide at rates twice those of their urban and suburban counterparts.

“Children are often too afraid to tell people what’s going on,” Martinez Humenik said. “We have people who see them every day who can really spot when something has changed. I hope we’ll see a difference being made.”

The law calls for schools to train “all school personnel,” from front desk staff to custodians and lunchroom workers, on the warning signs of suicidal thought and how to connect people in crisis to services, as well as how to diffuse crisis situations.

“I am a firm believer in equipping all staff to raise awareness,” Todd said.

This issue gained new urgency for some with the death by suicide late last year of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis of Aurora, a fifth-grader at Sunrise Elementary in the Cherry Creek School District. Davis took her own life after a video of her confronting a bully was posted on social media.

After hearing emotional testimony from Ashawnty’s family, lawmakers directed the Colorado Department of Education to develop and share a model anti-bullying policy. Though experts caution against drawing a direct link between bullying and suicide, legislators framed the bill at least in part as a response to the problem of children taking their own lives. The state already makes resources available to schools to carry out anti-bullying programs.

The same Republican-controlled Senate committee that voted down the first version of the grants bill also voted down a youth suicide prevention bill sponsored by state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, and state Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican, that would have provided training to adults who regularly interact with children but wouldn’t typically have access to suicide prevention training, like camp counselors and recreation center staff. It also would have created a website to serve as a clearinghouse of mental health resources throughout Colorado, and – most significantly and controversially – it would have allowed children as young as 12 to get therapy without their parents’ consent. 

Even removing that last provision couldn’t save the bill.

Supporters of the grant program say it’s a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t address the next steps, once a child in crisis is identified as such.

As she voted for the training grant program in a House committee Tuesday, Michaelson Jenet asked: “What will you do when these kids need counseling? Because we have said time and again that we won’t allow that.”

Under current law, teenagers 15 and older can get counseling without parental consent, but not younger children. After the committee hearing, Michaelson Jenet, who has repeatedly tried and failed to expand access to counseling for middle school-aged children, said it was “amazing” that Colorado lawmakers passed a bill that puts suicide prevention resources in schools, but “humiliating and embarrassing that we can’t do more.”

Sometimes very young children have thoughts of harming themselves, she said, and they need help from a licensed therapist, not a school custodian, to get the services they need. Those therapists can also help children figure out how to talk to their parents, she said.

“Nobody wants to do anything with students,” she said. “There is this belief that we can fix this without touching the student.”

Michaelson Jenet said she hopes the grant program is a first step that opens the door to a more comprehensive approach in future legislative sessions.

“The more we talk about it, the more we desensitize it – in a good way,” she said.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment gets $539,000 in state money for suicide prevention efforts for all age groups, as well as $736,000 from a five-year federal grant to reduce youth suicide in eight Colorado counties. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman recently launched a $200,000 initiative targeted at four counties with the highest suicide rates.

Grants to community-based organizations in some counties already focus on teenagers or work in schools, and some schools have their own suicide prevention programs. “Sources of Strength,” which identifies peer leaders and includes suicide prevention in a broader effort to improve school culture, is a popular curriculum in Colorado schools.

But until now, there hasn’t been a specific grant program for schools to train adults in suicide prevention. This new grant program will be available in all counties, with priority given to schools that haven’t had any prior training. School administrators will be able to select the training that feels right for their community.

Sarah Brummett, director of the Office of Suicide Prevention within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said training is “only one piece of the puzzle” and needs to work in conjunction with access to quality mental health care, which is lacking in many parts of the state, and changing community norms around talking about mental health and seeking help.

“Once schools start to get more support for carving out resources, hopefully they would move to the next level,” Brummett said. “Training is important, but operating alone, it’s not sufficient to meet the entire need.”

This story has been updated to reflect final approval in both chambers.


Resources

Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255, coloradocrisisservices.org. Chat online or text TALK to 38255.

Mental Health First Aid: mhfaco.org. Get trained to recognize the signs and how to respond.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org. Join one of their upcoming walks for awareness in Colorado.

Crisis Text Line: crisistextline.org. Text 741741 from anywhere in the nation to reach a counselor.