Summit County suicide prevention training ramps up countywide

Kevin Fixler
Susan Preaus, a behavioral health therapist with the Summit Community Care Clinic, is helping lead QPR suicide prevention trainings across the county through the Building Hope initiative. It is her goal that the work will help reduce the county's rising suicide rate, and thwart new additions to a scrapbook of past local lives lost to the national epidemic.
Hugh Carey / |

summit county mental health services:

Mind Springs Health 24/7 helpline: 888-207-4004;

Summit Community Care Clinic: 970-668-4040;

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 support: 800-273-8255;

National Alliance on Mental Health-High Country Colorado Chapter: 970-389-0808

Standing behind a podium in the basement of the Breckenridge Library, Susan Preaus thanked people for coming. It wasn’t an easy way to start a Monday morning.

For more than an hour and a half, Preaus, a therapist with the Summit Community Care Clinic, shared sobering statistics on a public health crisis that has hit Colorado mountain communities hard.

One person in the United States dies every 13 minutes from suicide, she explained, and another 11 attempt to take their lives in that same span.

The nation continues on an upward trend in suicides each year, she added. In 2015, the latest year with complete data, the U.S. recorded more than 44,000 suicides, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the country — up nearly 10,000 people annually from just 10 years ago.

Colorado previously ranked No. 4 in the U.S. for its total number of suicides, but has since improved to No. 9 in the last year. Still, Colorado — when grouped with several other western states — is well above the national average.

A decade back, Summit County experienced three in a year, and 2016 wound up setting a new record with 13. In addition, for every single death, estimates indicate about 62 immediate family members are also impacted by the loss, which data show makes each of them more likely to also choose this regrettable path.

“In our small community, it makes a very big impact,” said Preaus. “When we have a death by suicide and we have six to 12 to 24 people affected by that death, it puts a lot more people at risk. It is really affecting all of us.”

To try to increase awareness and reduce stigma associated with mental illness locally, the Casey family helped found Building Hope Summit County after well known, longtime Breckenridge resident Patti Casey ended her life in January 2016. Through its work, the community-driven advocacy group now sponsors monthly events to spread the word.

Through a partnership with Breckenridge Grand Vacations, Preaus — who works out of the school-based health center at Summit Middle School — put on the public lecture like several before it on spotting the warning signs of suicidal behaviors. Beyond identifying common cues that a person might notice in a friend or loved one, the objective of the presentations is to apply evidence-based techniques before that individual comes to an often-fatal decision.

Like many organizations, Building Hope has adopted the Washington state-based suicide prevention-training program known as QPR. The concept is similar to the teachings of the much more widely known CPR in that it takes hundreds of people going through a class to save one life, and thousands to save hundreds. In other words, the more people who attend the course, the more likely it is they’ll be able to step in and incorporate QPR — question, persuade and refer — to help curb a potential suicide.

The hour-long training separates myths from facts about this national epidemic, and is intended only to offer easy-to-remember guidelines for someone to positively approach another who is giving off clues that they might attempt suicide. It is not, however, constructed as a form of treatment or counseling. Instead, the aim is to act as an initial intervention and get that person the assistance they need.

Studies demonstrate that, when another person speaks up and inquires after detecting suicidal thoughts, a high percentage of those who are considering taking their own life go on to lead healthy, productive lives. Frequently, notions of suicide never again return.

“When people are in a suicidal crisis, it’s a very steep peak and a very steep drop,” said Preaus. “If we can somehow intervene when they’re in that thinking-about-it stage before we get to this peak crisis, we are going to save lives. That’s where we come into play.”

The Summit School District shares in this belief of trying to offset these risks in its students. The area’s public school system put on QPR trainings with its teachers in spring 2016, and plans to cast an even wider net with another training for additional staff and faculty — as well as a refresher for those who have already gone through it — this upcoming fall.

“The idea is that anybody can intervene in a moment of crisis when it comes to a student who might be expressing suicide ideation or self-harm,” said school district spokeswoman Julie McCluskie. “It’s just trying to make sure our staff knows enough, a basic 1-2-3 steps, to be able to get that kid some help.

“Teachers are not mental-health experts or licensed therapists,” she added, “so it’s just part of their tool kit to at least let them feel comfortable enough to refer students to a counselor or school-based health center therapist.”

Summit County has had one confirmed suicide so far in 2017. But a scrapbook dedicated to some of the local lives already lost that Preaus keeps for Building Hope and has plenty of blank pages that she knows will eventually be filled.

An abundance of new people join the mountain community each year, sometimes in an effort to leave behind problems from their past — only to have them re-emerge, and routinely no longer with the safety net of friends and family in the area. To assist them, the goal of the community-focused QPR program is to countervail suicides before a person gets to the point of turning thoughts into actions.

“Being part of the team, how can we be one little piece of this wheel, and just following up,” said Preaus. “Whatever it is, those little things can help save a life. When you plant the seeds of hope, you can help prevent suicide.”

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