The latest deaths dropped on the tight-knit communities of the Eastern Plains like a heavy fog.
Last month it was a senior at tiny Merino High, a girl who signed up for school plays and organized blood drives but was happiest in the rodeo arena.
Then, just a few weeks later, in December, students in a high school about 20 miles from Merino learned of another suicide, this time a junior who played football at Akron High School. His death came as a shock to students at his own high school but also across Washington County and beyond, where high school kids and their parents are connected through eight-man football.
At least seven young people have died by suicide in the last several months in the northeastern corner of Colorado, a 10-county region that spans 17,000 square miles but is among the least populated in the state. That’s according to a count by the local community mental health center; the state health department won’t release official 2020 suicide statistics for several months.
Washington and Yuma counties each had one youth suicide this fall within weeks of each other, the first in years for either county. Logan County had two — after having none at all the prior four years. All of this is a bad sign, said Washington County coroner Dallas Bowin, but it’s hard to find patterns in death when there are so few people in his rural county.
Still, Bowin said, the football player’s death this month was the first teen suicide in the five years since he became coroner.
The suicides in the midst of a pandemic that has shut down the clubs, sports and activities that normally keep teens engaged have sparked not just widespread concern but political protest. And that protest is rising up from the region’s youth.
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Kaden Piel, a freshman at Merino High, woke up with a start one night, just a few weeks after he lost his friend and fellow drama student to suicide.
“I woke up with a nightmare,” he said. “What if that was my sister or my cousin? What if that was my best friend?”
He put his thoughts into words on a screen, then walked into a Logan County commissioners’ meeting last week with a message: Bring back our activities because kids are dying.
Two nights later, in nearby Otis, another high school student also had reached a breaking point. Cyle Goble, a senior, had just learned of the death in Akron, a boy he had met at football games and thought of as a happy person. Goble, who has been quarantined from school three times for two weeks each, sat on his couch and for two hours pounded out a letter to post on social media.
Goble, a pole vaulter on the high school track team, didn’t get to compete this year because track season never happened. He missed out on other would-be highlights of his senior year too, including conventions for Future Farmers of America and Future Business Leaders of America.
“Somebody had to speak up,” he said.
The social media posts from both boys went viral. Both reached Gov. Jared Polis, and Piel spoke to the governor on the phone Tuesday night to share his concerns. Teens began using the hashtag “#7is7TooMany” on social media.
“There is a huge impact on every single student. Every person in our community was affected, like a huge, black cloud hanging over us,” said Piel, who keeps expecting to see his friend walking down the hallway at school. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. I still haven’t.”
Teens are “in a funk, in a hole”
It was the first time in Piel’s life that suicide hit so close.
The 15-year-old has taken a respectful approach as he tries to get the attention of politicians. It’s not that he doesn’t believe COVID-19 is serious — his grandparents live 4 miles away but he didn’t see them for three months because he didn’t want to expose them. Then they told him there was “no point in living” if they didn’t get to see their grandchildren.
What Piel wants is coronavirus restrictions that are “reasonable and fair to everyone,” from his grandparents to his friends, he said. Logan County, like many others across Colorado, has enough new infections to put it at the “red” level of the governor’s coronavirus dial, meaning indoor events and group sports are prohibited. The county has had more than 2,880 coronavirus cases and 49 deaths.
Goble’s approach was a bit more brusque. He tagged the governor on Facebook and asked, “Did you know that these terrible incidents had taken place? Did you grieve for these families? I would assume not. Just because of our smaller population we are being swept under the rug.”
Goble described how, on Dec. 10 at 10:50 a.m., school counselors arrived in his class. “They had just received word that a student from the school just 15 miles to the west had taken his own life, and I wish to God that I could say this was the first time we had to experience this but it was not. This same tragedy had occurred just the week before, once again only 15 miles away, to the east. Three weeks earlier another student claimed their own life less than 45 miles away to the north.”
In an interview with The Sun, Goble said counselors didn’t tell the students who had died, but they figured it out within seconds on social media. “One person opened up Snapchat and we had the answer,” he said. “There were kids that were crying. We had girls crying saying, ‘What if we are next?’ It was pretty traumatic.”
Later, a group of students sat together in a counselor’s office, first assuming that none among them would contemplate suicide and then acknowledging that they didn’t really know that. They’ve stayed up until 3 a.m. messaging each other about what happened. The backdrop of their conversation is always how the forced isolation of the coronavirus pandemic has upended their lives.
“Some of my friends relied on sports as a family,” Goble said. “They don’t go home to a good home life. Coaches were their father figures.”
Mark Phillips, pastor at First Baptist Church in Sterling, has been counseling young people who are depressed and suicidal in extraordinary amounts during the last few months. The lack of interaction, whether at sporting events or church, has “caused them to go into a funk, into a hole,” he said.
“I’m not sure people can really comprehend just how far-reaching this issue has gotten with our teenage and younger crowd,” said Phillips, who is also on the board for a local family resources center. “In rural areas, where the students are highly involved in local activities, to have all of those things that they have been setting up and preparing for over the years be squashed and pulled away? All of a sudden, everything in your senior year gets sucked away.”
Normally, when teenagers are depressed, the pastor encourages them to get engaged in a new activity, to find a place where they feel valued. “We have taken away these kids’ cairns,” the markers that guide them to adulthood, Phillips said.
Phillips believes coronavirus precautions are necessary — 32 people in his church were infected with the virus and three died. But he says the mental health repercussions from this period of isolation will extend “beyond the scope of our wildest imaginations.”
“Put a student suicide in Merino, which is a town that’s teeny-tiny, and make it the person who it was. You want to talk about impacting students? Huge, huge impact,” he said. “It’s been a heavy-duty year.”
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Searching for rationalization, blaming the pandemic
Local mental health professionals, too, said they are dealing with a year unlike any other they can recall. But blaming that entirely on the pandemic is too simplistic.
“People want to find something to rationalize why this might be happening,” said Maranda Miller, prevention services program manager at Centennial Mental Health, which has an office in each of the 10 counties in the northeast region.
Still, she hasn’t seen this many suicides of young people in such a short span ever before.
“Youth suicide is not something that is new to us,” she said. “What is new is that we are in an unknown, uncharted territory of life in general right now.”
Colorado for years has had one of the highest youth suicide rates in the nation; suicide is the leading cause of death in this state for people age 10-24.
Miller confirmed the suicides of seven young people in the region in the last several months, including some whose families do not want the cause of death known publicly. Each case is unique and complex, and there is no proof that they were caused by the coronavirus pandemic, she said.
Still, it’s clear that teens and young adults don’t have as much life experience to help them prepare for a national event such as this, Miller said. “We know this is having an effect on our kids,” she said.
Factors that help protect young people from suicide, according to mental health experts, include access to mental health care, support from parents and other adults, and connectedness to community — which has been diminished during the pandemic.
Compared to Denver, the area is devoid of mental health treatment options. There are no 24/7 walk-in crisis centers. Anyone who needs in-patient treatment would have to travel to Fort Collins or Denver. A new program just getting started in the area allows students to access mental health therapy at their school, via telehealth appointments.
Miller and others are working, too, against stigma that persists in the rural towns. “People know what you drive and they see your vehicle parked in a mental health center, they know you are there for something,” she said of Centennial’s offices, which also provide substance abuse treatment.
“We are still trying to get people to understand the brain health, the brain science behind it,” Miller said. “Our kids are really getting it. I’m a little bit concerned about our adults understanding it.”
Some folks in the community are concerned that talking about the recent suicides will cause more of them to happen, she said. While suicide contagion is real, and it’s important not to glamorize the deaths, it’s false that talking about suicide or asking people whether they are contemplating suicide will trigger them to do it, Miller said.
“They are either thinking about it or they’re not,” she said. “We absolutely should be talking about it.”
Balancing deadly virus with economic, spiritual health
Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera said she and Polis have worked to find balance curbing the spread of a deadly virus against impacts on the economy and the mental wellbeing of children and teens. Colorado’s high suicide rates, especially among those age 24 and younger, were a priority of the administration before the pandemic began, she said.
“The governor and I are listening,” Primavera said in an interview with The Sun. Polis wanted to talk personally to Piel, the teen from Merino, because “it was something that obviously touched the governor a lot,” she said.
Before the coronavirus hit Colorado, Primavera and Polis set up “listening sessions” with teenagers in the southwest corner of the state after several teens tried to die by suicide on the same day. A couple of them died, the lieutenant governor said.
The administration also created a behavioral health task force, which gathered input from young people and parents across the state, including many who have lost children to suicide. The work is not done, she said, and the administration has focused lately on getting students back to in-person school and making telemental health appointments more accessible.
“I compare us addressing the COVID-19 pandemic to almost an arcade game — you try to fight one problem and another one pops up,” she said. “It’s a balancing act trying to address physical health, economic health, spiritual health.”
Piel came up with the idea of trying to get the governor’s attention after he went to the Logan County commissioners’ meeting and learned that they could not restore school clubs, indoor sports and events as he had requested.
“I would love to do that, but it’s not within my authority to do,” said Commissioner Jane Bauder, whose two teenagers attended Merino High. She suggested Piel make his letter “go viral” and helped him connect with a local agriculture radio station, The BARN.
Bauder is terrified by the thought of losing another young person in the community to suicide, and believes isolation is contributing to the crisis. “The thought of losing a child is just unbearable for me,” she said. “Some of the things that all of us need are intimacy, friendship, community. COVID is threatening our safety, and then it’s isolating us. How can your need for belonging be met in isolation?”
Bauder found out about the latest suicide in a text from her 17-year-old son.
The death devastated an entire community, a place where people gather at school plays and football games, where instead of going out for fancy dinner on the night of the homecoming dance, teens gathered in Bauder’s dining room where she served crab legs and steaks, she said.
Students’ activities are connected to their mental well-being, and the kids who died recently were active in their schools, she said. “These over-achievers, that’s what they do. They get straight As. You take all those things away from them, what do they have?” she asked. “That’s what feeds their soul.”
Commissioner Byron Pelton, whose two daughters were “pretty distraught” about not having their junior high band concert, said the state coronavirus restrictions have hampered local officials’ ability to work together on providing safe opportunities for people to gather. Before the latest restrictions, Logan County held its county fair, using parameters set by local public health officials.
Kids were able to get in the ring to show their hogs and cattle, but had to stay at least 6 feet apart.
“I think our community is willing to do anything to make these programs happen,” Pelton said.
For Piel, having something that he and his friends could look forward to would lift them from sadness. He said he would “give up every sport, club and organization” to have his friend back, but the best way to protect the rest of them is to let them “participate in the things we know and love together.”
“What is the real pandemic among teens?” he wrote in his Facebook post. “People are dying because of choices made that are meant to protect us.”