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What’s behind Colorado’s new suicide prevention campaign? Real teen voices

Posted 01/25/2019

by: Jennifer Brown

In the span of two weeks, four students at Chad Hawthorne’s high school in Colorado Springs killed themselves. The deaths came every few days near the end of his freshman year, even as school officials scrambled to make them stop.

Across town at Alexis McCowan’s high school, a friend’s little brother took his own life last year. It was the first suicide to touch the young El Paso County charter school where students felt so protected from drugs and death that they called themselves the “bubble kids.”

The voices of Hawthorne and McCowan, along with a handful of other teens, are behind a new statewide suicide prevention campaign. Expect to see their messages soon on a social media post, chapstick tube or school wall near you.

The campaign, created by the teens and coordinated by the Colorado Springs affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, was so successful in El Paso County, the state is copying it.

It’s called “Below the Surface” — as in a teen might look put together on the outside, but inside is feeling depressed, anxious or suicidal — and the posters are in-your-face honest. The whole point is to urge young people who need help to send a text message to an anonymous helpline that will start a live text conversation with a counselor. 

Chad Hawthorne, 18, is reflected in a poster that is part of a National Alliance on Mental Illness awareness campaign to prevent youth suicide. Hawthorne, a senior at Discovery Canyon Campus High School in Colorado Springs, was one of a group of teens who helped work on the campaign. This poster is his favorite. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The text line has existed in Colorado for almost three years, but the state had yet to market it to its target audience: teenagers.

Until now. After seeing texts to the hotline more than triple in El Paso County, the state Office of Behavioral Health has spent $70,000 since October to expand “Below the Surface” statewide, creating a new website, short videos and a youth leadership program. 

Texts from El Paso County reached 1,648 in 2018, including 687 from teens ages 13 to 17. That was up from 968 a year earlier, when the local campaign began. The line received 492 El Paso County texts from March 2016, when it went live, through the end of that year.

The average text conversation lasts 47 minutes.

Putting forth a good face but “struggling underneath”

Hawthorne and McCowan were among a group of young people invited by NAMI two years ago to brainstorm ways to tackle the teen suicide rate in El Paso County, one of four counties with the highest rates in Colorado. The county had 117 youth suicides from 2003-2017.  

The ideas went straight from the teens’ heads to a creative design team that developed posters, notecards and stickers advertising the little-known text line.

Each of the posters, which debuted in two El Paso County schools that agreed to pilot the project, starts with an attention-grabbing, positive message on the top half. And then on the bottom half, “below the surface,” is the truth that’s harder to see. 

“I’m in love,” states one on a bright purple background. “But I’m scared to come out.”

“I’m happy. That people think I’m doing OK.”

“My good grades,” says the top of an orange poster, which continues, “Are never quite good enough.”

Kirk Woundy, communications and grants manager for the National Alliance on Mental Illness said there sometimes is a disconnect between what people “present to other people and what you are dealing with internally.”(Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

By tracking texts to the crisis line in the 16 ZIP codes surrounding the two schools where the first posters appeared, researchers were able to show the extent of the campaign’s impact. Contact with the crisis line went from just 35 texts in the five months before the posters were up, to 103 text conversations in a five-month period afterward.

The posters first appeared in Manitou Springs High School and Atlas Preparatory School in Colorado Springs at the start of the 2017-18 school year. As word spread, more schools asked to display the materials.

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