Piñon takes prevention to peer level

Talking with kids about preventing suicide among their peers can be the difference between life and death.

The Piñon Project is working to encourage those conversations through a three-year grant of up to $45,000 from the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention.

The issue has become a concern because the number of local suicides has surpassed the U.S. average of 12 per 100,000 people. In 2012, Colorado saw 1,053 people take the lives, a rate of 20 per 100,000 people.

Between 2008 and 2012, there were 38 suicides in Montezuma County. In 2013, 22 people took their lives, and in 2014, 9 have taken their lives, according to the coroner’s office.

A program called Sources of Strength trains 10 select middle and high school students to be peer leaders in their schools and become more aware of suicide’s warning signs.

Selected students are directed to show compassion and talk with troubled classmates about what is bothering them. Peer leaders pass information to adult advisers who will been trained in intervention and counseling.

“Studies show that kids are more likely to tell other kids they are thinking about suicide, and we want to be more prepared if that happens,” said Daria Sparks, a youth leader for the Piñon Project. “We’re breaking the silence.”

If someone is in trouble, the program goes beyond just telling an adult about it.

“It used to be if a classmate was a loner or upset or being bullied, people would tell the teacher, and that’s it. We’re saying engage with that person, become their friend and bring them into the group. The isolation of being left out of cliques can be overwhelming for kids, leading to depression and sometimes suicide.”

The program goes beyond focusing on warning signs. Student leaders are expected to create hope, help and strength messages.

Kelli Unrein, Piñon youth program director, said the program wants to make sure no one is left behind.

“Rural communities have less services for social needs. We’re more isolated, we struggle with poverty. That’s why we need to stick together more, watch out for each other,” she said.

Mancos schools and Montezuma-Cortez High school have signed up for the program, which is expected to roll out in December.

Ten students in each school will be responsible for suicide-prevention programs.

“Suicide is a tough conversation, and it’s scary,” Sparks said. “But you have to start somewhere. It may take awhile, but our goal is to have every school, from Dove Creek and Cortez, to Dolores and Mancos participating.”