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.”