Middle school steps

The steps at Aspen Middle School convey positive messages. “Resiliency training,” which teaches students to handle adversity, is being implemented into a life-skills course for seventh- and eighth-graders on a trial basis. It may be offered to younger students next year.

A new push is afoot to reduce the high suicide rate in Aspen and Pitkin County.

According to Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, who has taken a large interest in the topic, the effort involves a two-pronged approach.

One is to provide mental health first-aid training to anyone in the county willing to take it. Courses are offered through Colorado Mountain College, Mind Springs Health and the Aspen Hope Center.

“The idea is, let’s get everybody training it and everybody taking it,” Poschman said. “I’m also going to work on getting some type of incentive for people to take the class. The idea is, you train teachers and lift operators, bartenders and bus drivers, managers and executives — everybody in the community — to be able to spot someone who’s having a hard time.”

The second approach is perhaps newer and is known as resiliency training. It targets youths more than adults, teaching them to adapt and recover quickly from situations involving stress, adversity or tragedy.

Courses in resiliency are being implemented at the Aspen Middle School and the Aspen Youth Center. It starts with an online examination of a person’s character traits, similar to a personality test, and then moves into ways the individual can offset certain character deficiencies outlined in the exam.

“The idea is to raise the overall resilience of the community,” Poschman said. “We live in what’s called the ‘Suicide Belt,’ consisting of ski towns and other points west. If our suicide rate is not the highest in the state, we’re among the highest, no question about it. And the state’s rate is very high within the country.”

Data on suicide rates for Aspen and Pitkin County traditionally has been difficult to obtain. The Colorado Health Institute’s figures show that Pitkin County’s rate over a three-year-period, from 2013 to 2015, was 22.6 suicides per 100,000 residents, higher than the state average of 19.1. The institute’s website does not list a more recent figure.

The institute also reported that in 2017, the state set a record with 1,175 suicides. In that year, the southwestern corner of the state, which does not include Pitkin, Garfield or Eagle counties, had the highest suicide rates, according to the institute.

Within Colorado, suicide is more common among people from 45 to 64 years old than any other age category. Men are three times more likely than women to commit suicide, which also is the leading cause of death of the state’s residents in the 10-24 age range, the institute says.

If there is positive news, it’s that the state’s overall suicide rate appeared to level off from 2016 to the record year of 2017 — there was no substantial increase. Data for 2018 is not yet available.

“There have been multiple prevention efforts at the state and local level to reduce deaths due to suicide in Colorado. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Office of Suicide Prevention has implemented multiple evidence-based practices and programs to help increase public awareness, train providers, schools and community members, and increase prevention outreach,” the institute says.

Courtney Dunn, a prevention specialist and social worker with the Aspen School District, confirmed that resiliency training is being incorporated into a life-skills course at Aspen Middle School, albeit on a trial basis. She and another instructor will be offering it to seventh- and eighth-graders sometime in the next month.

She was hired by the local school system with the help of a state grant. Resiliency training may be offered to students younger than the seventh-grade level next year.

“I think there is a definitely a big push across Colorado just for more substance-use prevention and mental-health support in schools,” Dunn said. “There is a lot being implemented. My position is fairly new; I was hired last year. Other schools around the valley also have gotten prevention specialists around the same time as I was hired.”

Sharon Raggio, president and CEO of Mind Springs Health, a Glenwood Springs nonprofit providing psychiatric care, said recently obtained grants are enabling her organization to provide more mental health first-aid training to individuals and organizations from Pitkin County.

“What we are going to be setting up are opportunities for people to be trained in mental health first aid,” she said. “Mental health first aid is much like Red Cross first aid, it teaches you the basic signs of how to recognize when a person is in emotional distress and how to intervene, how to talk to that person.”

Mind Springs’ goal is to train people to be trainers themselves, Raggio said.

“Those trainers can take that back to their workplace, their social group, wherever, and train lots of other people for years to come,” she said.

While there are other organizations in the county already working in the area of suicide prevention, such as the Aspen Hope Center, Mind Springs is looking to provide support to existing efforts, Raggio said. It’s all about bolstering the community’s structure in the mental-health arena.

Michaela Idhammar, executive director for the Aspen Youth Center, said the nonprofit is starting a trial program for resiliency training. About 20 students from fourth through sixth grades will meet at the center after school for 30 to 40 minutes every Wednesday from Feb. 13 until the end of the school year. They will not meet during spring break.

It’s a fun and positive course for the kids that strives to teach them to process emotions correctly, she said.

“Basically, we want them to have resiliency so that they can grow into stronger adults who can handle the good and the bad,” she said. “It’s about getting the kids to be tougher, to bounce back from difficulties more quickly and to be able to cope with trauma and crisis.”

Poschman said while he enjoys his day-to-day work as a commissioner, the wheels of government often turn slowly. Working with other agencies to improve mental-health services and suicide prevention is an arena where he can make a faster difference.

And that, he said, helps him to improve his own mood.

“Now I feel I’m accomplishing something,” Poschman said.

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.