Spreading a message of hope: The Piñon Project is offering a program that uses both schoolkids and adults to prevent suicide among youth

Suicide is the ultimate expression of hopelessness. It’s tragic at any age, but there is something especially heart-wrenching about suicide among the young.

That’s why the Piñon Project is working to implement a program throughout middle schools and high schools in Montezuma and Dolores counties that is designed to promote coping skills and spread the message that there is hope.

Using a $15,000 grant from Colorado’s Office of Suicide Prevention, officials with the Cortez-based nonprofit are working with school officials to launch a suicide-prevention program called “Sources of Strength” that uses both adults and youths.

The need is acute, according to Kelli Unrein, youth program director with the Piñon Project.

“Suicide in general, not just youth suicide, is a particular concern in our neck of the woods,” she said. “We – Montezuma and Dolores counties – always rank extremely high when it comes to suicide, and it’s not just youth — it’s males, it’s veterans.

“We had to pick an area where we wanted to focus, and we chose to focus on youth. But suicide doesn’t target one group, it targets everybody.”

In 2012, there was a record-high rate of completed suicides in Colorado of 19.7 per 100,000, according to the Office of Suicide Prevention’s annual report for 2012-2013.

“This is the highest number and rate of suicide deaths ever recorded in Colorado, and represents a 16 percent increase over the number of deaths in 2011,” the report states.

There were 1,503 suicides reported among Colorado residents in 2012, and 11 of those were from Montezuma or Dolores counties, Unrein said, making the local rate almost twice as high as the state’s.

Colorado consistently ranks among the top 10 states nationwide for its suicide rate. And although the statewide incidence of suicide was highest among Coloradans aged 45 to 64, according to the 2012-13 annual report, suicide was the leading cause of death for those in the 10- to-34 age bracket.

Adolescence is a difficult time, and surveys reflect that.

The 2011 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which is given in schools, found that 21.9 percent of high-school students in Colorado reported feeling “so sad or hopeless almost every day” for at least two weeks in a row over the past 12 months that they stopped doing some of their usual activities. Even worse, 14.8 percent reported seriously considering suicide, and 6.1 percent attempted suicide one or more times.

Those numbers were higher locally, according to Unrein. The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey found that 27 percent of youth in Montezuma County reported feeling sad or helpless almost every day for two weeks or more, 17 percent said they’d seriously considered suicide, and 10 percent attempted suicide one or more times in the past year.

And those statistics may be low, Unrein added, because they involve self-reporting.

“These surveys are given in school, so the kids have to be in school that day to take them, and we know our most at-risk kids are often not in school, so often they are not counted in these surveys.”

Just this summer there was a teen suicide in the local area, she said.

But with the grant, which is for middle and high-school-aged youth in Montezuma and Dolores counties, the Piñon Project will be working to implement an evidence-based program called “Sources of Strength” in local schools.

The program has several different focuses, Unrein said, but one key goal is increasing eight protective factors that decrease the risk of social isolation – which can contribute to depression and suicide.

Those factors are:

  • Family support • Positive peer influences/positive friends • Mentors • Healthy activities • Generosity (which Unrein said links into feeling connected within one’s community and school) • Spirituality • Medical access • Mental health

The first step in implementing the program is obtaining administrative approval. Then the school administrators tell the Piñon Project’s advisers whom they want to become adult advisers within the school.

“These could be teachers, mentors, advisers, or volunteers,” Unrein said. These adults are given “QPR” training (question, persuade, response) so they know what to do if they learn that a youth is thinking about suicide.

Then those adult advisers, along with trained staff from Piñon, will recruit peer leaders.

“We would love to have 10 peer leaders from each school,” she said. “We want them from across the spectrum, from all kinds of students. Those 10 students with the two adult advisers will meet for one hour a month, whether during their lunch, after school, whenever – they decide that, because each school is different.”

Both the adult advisers and the peer leaders will be trained about the sources of strength and the warning signs of suicide.

“We’re not training them to become mental- health professionals,” Unrein said, “but about the eight protective factors. If each one of those students talks to five friends about sources of strength and they talk to five friends, that’s how you begin that culture shift.”

The peer leaders will also be taught to seek help from an adult if they believe a student is depressed and/or contemplating suicide. “Youth are more likely to tell other youth if they’re thinking about suicide, so this is designed to break down those codes of silence by connecting them with adults – the adult advisers and mentors. We want teens to begin seeking help from adults, or if a teen hears of someone else needing help they will go talk to them.

“The program focuses on positive health-seeking behaviors within students and positive coping behaviors.”

Peer leaders will also develop activities to spread a message of hope and awareness, whether through social media, pep rallies, posters, or something else. “They’re building a new culture of hope and strength within their school. The sky is the limit,” Unrein said. “The power is that the kids are leading it. Kids know kids best.”

Currently, the Piñon Project has commitments from the Mancos School District and Montezuma-Cortez High School to implement the program, and is talking to other schools.

“We’d love to partner with Dove Creek, Mancos, Dolores and both the Cortez high and middle school. Right now we have commitments from Mancos and MCHS and we’re certainly talking to other schools and answering questions.”

After administrative approval, the next step is providing QPR training for the adults. Then comes the recruitment of youth from each of the participating schools.

“By November we hope to complete the Sources of Strength training for both kids and adults and then we’ll roll out the program,” Unrein said.

It’s possible the program can be funded again in the next two years for a total of $45,000 in grants, she said. “We will have to be meeting outcomes to get re-funded.”

Unrein said she believes the program will become stronger as time goes on. “It’s a process, so the longer it goes, the more powerful it becomes. The hope is that over time the Sources of Strength program will change the culture within the schools.

“We’re super excited.”


From September 2014.