By: Faith Miller

June 6, 2017

When five teenagers at his high school took their own lives in a single semester, Chad Hawthorne knew he had to do something.

Two years ago, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Colorado Springs(NAMI) offered him — and a handful of other El Paso County students who’d been affected by tragedy — a way to help.

The outcome of their efforts is the Below the Surface campaign. Below the Surface seeks to raise teens’ awareness of Colorado’s crisis text line, a free, 24/7 service for people feeling depressed, anxious or upset. The campaign is one of several programs schools are rolling out in the aftermath of a startling increase in teen suicides across El Paso County in 2016. (Those numbers, thankfully, dropped slightly in 2017.)

In 2016, there were 15 completed youth suicides, a jump from seven in 2014 and 14 in 2015, according to El Paso County Public Health. Colorado has one of the highest overall suicide rates in the country, and while statistically it’s hard to compare rates across counties, El Paso County’s rate has long been one of the worst.

The crisis line, run by Colorado Crisis Services, is free and confidential. Anyone seeking help can call 844/493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255. Through the text line, students who are experiencing any kind of issue — whether that’s depression, anxiety, family problems or even a breakup — can text in anonymously and be connected with a mental health professional.

The text line has been around for years, but NAMI launched the Below the Surface campaign in 2016 to expand awareness of the free service. With grant money and the input of high-school students, NAMI developed posters, stickers and cards with messaging they hoped would resonate with teens who need help.

Now, there are 16 schools using the campaign throughout El Paso County, from Falcon to Manitou Springs. The marketing materials are available for free to all area districts. In the fall, NAMI has plans to expand to rural schools in El Paso County, spokesperson Kirk Woundy (who was previously editor at the Indy) says. Eventually, NAMI hopes to bring the campaign to schools across the state.

Schools usually have counseling services available while classes are in session, but students may find it harder to get help when they go home for break. The text line offers a solution, says Hawthorne, now a senior at Discovery Canyon Campus.

“I think summer in general is a time when people can feel a lot more lonely,” he says. “[The text line] is a good way to be able to know that if you need someone, someone will be there.”

Hawthorne was part of a focus group of about 10 students who worked with NAMI and the Design Rangers firm on the campaign. Designers showed the students examples of other campaigns, including that of Safe2Tell, a state-funded program where students can submit anonymous tips about threats to their safety or the safety of others.

Emma Weien, also a senior at Discovery Canyon, says Safe2Tell could sometimes turn into “people feeling like they are tattling on other people.” She thought it was important to make the Below the Surface campaign more genuine, without being condescending.

“I think, first of all, the fact that it is texting makes kids feel more comfortable to really open up about themselves,” she says. “I know that I would, I feel more comfortable when it comes to this than doing something like Safe2Tell or a hotline, doing a suicide hotline call.”

The students in the focus group spoke with NAMI’s designers about issues that were important to them, and helped fine-tune the messaging on the finished posters. The top half of the posters displays a positive message, with more text underneath (“below the surface”) about the difficult realities of life for some students.

For example, one poster reads “My life is full / of pressure and expectations.” Another: “I’m in love / but I’m scared to come out.”

Jim Bailey, the high school principal at Discovery Canyon, says that while the school understood the posters’ underlying messages, administrators have so far declined to use them.

“The way we perceived some of those posters was more like, you may think you’re OK, but you really aren’t,” Bailey says. “It just felt kind of negative.”

Instead, Discovery Canyon participated in the Below the Surface campaign by passing out cards and stickers with information about the text line and installing a wall graphic.

Promoting the text line is one of several new ways local schools are fighting back. Academy School District 20 — along with Falcon School District 49, also hit by teen suicide — is working with mental health organization AspenPointe to bring professionals on campus for referrals.

District 49 is using Below the Surface posters, and has implemented “social and emotional learning” into its curriculum, says Dr. Kim Boyd, director of community care with the district. (Boyd has a blog with mental health advice for students, staff and parents.)

Another new resource for schools is the Mental Health Toolkit, developed by Mental Health Colorado. This month, the nonprofit headed by former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff released the toolkit for schools, teachers and parents. It includes ongoing mental health strategies that, Romanoff says, go beyond a one-time presentation.

“Suicide will strike a school and understandably people want to do something, so they might hold a school assembly, bring kids to a gym or cafeteria and offer a lecture, but that may not actually have any value at all,” Romanoff says. “I think what most school leaders want are programs that actually work.”

Romanoff hopes schools around the state will begin implementing the free toolkit in their curriculum. With a staff of only about a dozen people, Mental Health Colorado can’t provide technical assistance to everyone, but hopes to identify school and district leaders and allies to help put the strategies in place.

One of the ideas promoted in the toolkit, Romanoff says, involves understanding that mental health extends beyond campus. That includes “programs that engage families and communities in serving kids throughout the year, rather than just during the time they’re in school.”

The Crisis Text Line is one way students can access help throughout the year, Alexis McCowan says. McCowan, who was part of NAMI’s focus group, recently graduated from James Irwin Charter High School in District 2 and now attends the University of Northern Colorado. She says she still uses the text line when she needs emotional support.

“At my institution there’s counseling offices for free, so I go see a therapist every week,” McCowan says. “That’s not offered during the summer, because I’m home. I’ve personally been relying on the text line to just keep myself afloat.”

Article originally appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent.