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Colorado Looks To Amp Up Its Suicide Prevention Efforts

A new bill would expand the state's mental health infrastructure.

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Editor’s Note 6/10/2016: The governor signed an amended Colorado Senate bill 16-147—Suicide Prevention Through Zero Suicide Model—on Friday, June 10, making the Centennial State the first in the nation to put a version of Zero Suicide in statute.


Denver may have just been named the best place to live in the country (a moniker I won’t dispute), but there’s another rank we should all be paying attention to: The Centennial State is seventh in the nation for suicide deaths. As I explained in September’s “The Canyon Of Why,” Colorado and the surrounding mountain states are known as “the suicide belt” because of the high rates of suicide in the region. Much has been done in recent years to try and turn around this tragic situation, including starting an Office of Suicide Prevention (we’re one of the only states to do so) and implementing a statewide crisis system. However there is still a lot of work to do: The 1,058 suicide deaths in Colorado in 2014 were the highest number in the state’s history.

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One new strategy is being brought to the attention of state legislators on Thursday, when the Colorado Senate Health and Human Services Committee hears a bill that recommends adoption of the Zero Suicide model. The gist: Suicide deaths for individuals being cared for in the health and behavioral health systems are preventable. (Forty-five percent of those who die by suicide have seen their primary care provider within a month of their death; more than 30 percent are receiving mental health care at the time of their death.) If passed, SB16-147 would result in a system-wide implementation of the framework (think: hospitals, community mental health centers, substance abuse treatment organizations, and more) on or before July 1, 2019. It would encourage providers to adopt suicide prevention-specific training requirements, and it would streamline already existing (anonymous) data to better understand who is at risk. The Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado, Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network, and Colorado Psychiatric Society are among the supporters. “[The model] has shown up to an 80 percent reduction in suicides for those in care. We would be the first state in the country to put this into statute,” says Colorado state Senator Linda Newell, one of the bill’s sponsors. “The term zero suicide is a lofty goal—it’s an aspiration. However, we should be doing everything we can to make sure no one falls through the cracks.”

But this bill isn’t the only suicide prevention effort in the works right now. Colorado has unofficially been chosen as the possible site for a pilot collaboration that would bring national and local organizations together to do comprehensive suicide prevention work in a single state. “We’re seeing that in medical settings, when we apply Zero Suicide, there are reduced rates of suicide. It begs the question: If it can be done in certain setting, why can’t it be done anywhere?” says Jerry Reed, vice president and director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Injury, Violence and Suicide “We began to talk up this idea of maybe the time has come for us to look at a state that could apply all of these substantial positive forces and see if we could help them work together nationally and at the state level to implement interventions. Colorado jumped out as one such state that had a lot of stuff going for it.”

The Centennial State is ripe for such a project because of a combination of positive and negative attributes: We have a high suicide rate and enough deaths that you could measure the impact of new initiatives, but we also have infrastructure already in place, an active legislature, and a strong contingent of people committed to the issue. “It’s a full-court press for Colorado,” says Jarrod Hindman, violence and suicide prevention section manager at the Office of Suicide Prevention.

Hindman is compiling a “thorough inventory” of what’s happening in the state and what barriers exist; a timeline will develop out of that. No official decisions have been made, and funding has not yet been committed (though Reed says conversations with possible federal partners are ongoing). Ideally, this concerted public health approach will be applied in Colorado and show positive results that can be shared with other states. “This is an idea whose time has come,” Reed says, “And Colorado is certainly a place that would be an extraordinary partner to try to bring some of these concrete ideas to fruition.”

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–Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Daliah Singer, 5280 Contributor

Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.

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