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Communities called to action after youth suicide clusters
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This story is part of Lifelines, a Rocky Mountain PBS project focused on youth suicide prevention. This is one segment in a series of stories focused on how communities have responded after experiencing high rates of youth suicide. Find the full Learning Through Loss story here.

If you have an immediate mental health crisis, please call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255 or text TALK to 38255. Or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also chat with the Lifeline.

Insight with John Ferrugia

Two communities called to action after suicide clusters


Students share the impact of classmates' deaths as communities work to prevent suicide.

Though they are more than a thousand miles apart, Colorado Springs, Colorado and Palo Alto, California share a common mission born out of shared grief.

In 2015, both communities were experiencing painful losses of young people by suicide, referred to as suicide clusters. In the five years since, the communities have focused on healing and prevention.

“You’re constantly on edge,” said Sienna Adams, a recent graduate of Discovery Canyon Campus in Colorado Springs.

“You’re looking for the next person to burst and just trying to talk to everyone, but you can’t. Then there’s a lot of guilt,” Adams said. “It creates a lot of emptiness within the school.”

In Palo Alto, Gunn High School graduate Chloe Sorensen said she will never forget the day her teacher announced a classmate had taken his own life.

“I remember this, like, instant breakdown … people just running out of classrooms crying,” Sorensen said. “You don’t have a lot of those moments as a 14-year-old, 15-year-old.”

Both students jumped into action to help. In Palo Alto, Sorensen spoke up at a school board meeting after another student’s death, telling the community to focus on offering support rather than blame. And in Colorado Springs, Adams took part in a program that trained students to support each other and seek help from trusted adults.

And in the years since the clusters, both Palo Alto and Colorado Springs have undertaken many community efforts aimed at keeping young people safe.

“It was like a call to arms,” recalls Martha Hinson, the health and wellness specialist at Academy District 20 in Colorado Springs. “I think we knew it was a massive mountain to climb, and many of us didn’t know where to start, but we knew we had to start somewhere.”

Suicide prevention leaders in both communities say it’s common to field questions from communities all over the country, asking for advice.

“We did attract some national attention, unfortunately,” said Kelsey Leva, who helps run the El Paso County Youth Suicide Prevention Workgroup in Colorado. “I guess a silver lining of that is that then we were known for having done something about it.”

“I think everybody wants to learn what happens if this happens,” said Hinson. “Of course, when you're put into it and you have to learn while you're in the middle of it … so many people can glean from it.”

Insight with John Ferrugia

Sociologist studying suicide clusters discusses prevention


An expert discusses why one student's death by suicide could put others at risk.

Indiana University sociology professor Anna Mueller studies youth suicide clusters by moving into communities that experience them.

“Part of what we’re looking for when we define a suicide cluster is a disproportionately high rate of youth suicide that’s way beyond what we would expect,” she said. “If a school loses two kids to suicide over a month, that could be considered a suicide cluster. I would also argue that if a school has lost two kids to suicide over the course of a year, that is also likely a suicide cluster.”

The sociologist is studying two school districts in Colorado, in Littleton and Mesa County, but has shifted to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She says a goal of her research in Colorado is to collaborate with schools to find strategies for sustainable suicide prevention. She says she cannot yet discuss her findings in Colorado, but shared what she has learned in other communities.

Mueller said it can be very difficult for communities that experience increases in youth suicide to turn things around without addressing the problems head-on.

"Bring in all the interventions, talk about suicide, talk about suicide with middle schoolers. Talk about mental health, talk about mental health stigma, talk about help-seeking," she said.

Mueller has not studied the clusters in Colorado Springs or Palo Alto, but has focused some of her work on the idea of contagion the thought that one death by suicide could influence another.

“I sort of take issue with the language of contagion. It's not my favorite because it does imply if I sneeze, you're going to catch suicide. That is not how suicide works,” Mueller said. “What it means is that when a youth is exposed to suicide, on average, we do see their risk of thinking about suicide or even attempting suicide increase over time, as a result of that exposure.”

NEXT SEGMENT: Housing and food assistance programs are key parts of suicide prevention efforts

If you have an immediate mental health crisis, please call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255 or text TALK to 38255. Or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also chat with the Lifeline.