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After a tough few years, Summit County teens are starting to feel better

During a recent Sources of Strength class, students whisper and giggle during a game of telephone. Fun is an important part of the class; students feel that these meetings give them a break from the hectic pace of high school life. (Leigh Paterson/KUNC)
During a recent Sources of Strength class, students whisper and giggle during a game of telephone. Fun is an important part of the class; students feel that these meetings give them a break from the hectic pace of high school life. (Leigh Paterson/KUNC)

The Leadership Class meeting in Summit High School’s library kicks off with a few questions: How are you doing today? What have you done for self-care? If your feeling was a food, what would it be?

“I just say my food is, probably, I would say tamales. Because it takes a lot of patience and a lot of time to deal with it. And I feel like I have to have a lot of patience right now,” Sophomore Angela Gutierrez explains.

The teen has been taking care of her little brother since he recently got a concussion.

“I have to be mindful of how much time he spends on the video games and I also have to be cleaning the house. And making him food and I feel like everything's rushed,” Gutierrez said.

These students are juggling a lot: family responsibilities, multiple jobs and activities, like the recent school play, "Beauty and the Beast." The Leadership Class is a time for them to talk through their own stressors and plan wellness events for their classmates. The group is part of the school’s large peer-led suicide prevention program, Sources of Strength, that launched in 2021 following two student suicides.

We want to see that number go down

Today, school psychologist and Sources of Strength coordinator Anna Howden, goes over new mental health data with the students from the 2023 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey.

In 2021, 36 percent of Summit High School teens reported persistent sadness and hopelessness. Last year, that number fell to 20 percent.

“That's an improvement. We want to see that number go down,” Howden said.

The survey, administered every other year to over 100,000 students in Colorado, tracks youth wellbeing through a variety of measures from mental health to nutrition. Colorado’s Department of Public Health and the Environment plans to publish statewide results this summer.

After a rough few years, the new 2023 data from Summit High School is good news. The percentage of teens reporting that their stress has felt manageable has gone up, while the percentage who seriously considered suicide decreased. Teachers and administrators point to the return of in-person learning as a major driver of this change.

“We have struggled a lot through 2020 and it was hard for most people to get help,” Senior Erikka Abbott said.

She remembers one of the boys who died by suicide that year.

“He didn’t know who to talk to during COVID. He was in my third grade class and I remember he said some nice things to me. He was kind,” Abbott said.

The students in this class say talking about mental health is more accepted now. Question Persuade Refer, a type of suicide prevention training, is mandatory for 9th graders. Teachers have been offered Askable Adult training to learn how to better communicate with teens.

“It's a lot easier for me to talk to my teachers now than it was my freshman year and all my years in middle school,” Angela Gutierrez said. “My teachers tell me ‘We understand your stress, you have other classes, you have other work, you have family stuff, a lot of students work.’ So I think it's just become more normal.”

Freshman Evan Elliott says joining Sources of Strength (SOS), helped at a time when he was having trouble with some friends.

“That's when I was in like a not so great place in my life,” Elliot said. “And I feel like SOS did help a little bit because I went there and it was like less judgmental and less hard to speak there. And it was fun.”

It’s okay to not be okay

The goal of SOS is to improve student mental health, long before a crisis. Later in the day, during the larger class meeting, the group discusses an upcoming prom dress drive. Past activities include organizing a blood drive and stocking the nurses office with free hygiene supplies.

“So I think if you feel like you're cared for and you feel like you belong to a part of the community, it's easier to accept help, to ask for help and to help each other,” Howden said.

Administrators at Summit High School know that more needs to be done. The school doesn’t have enough counselors. Last year, their one bi-lingual counselor transferred to another school.

Co-Principal Brittny Acres says she continues to get Safe2Tell notifications about students with serious mental health concerns at least once a month.

Those alerts will come in at any hour of the night," Acres said. "And that's been a concern that students know where to go, when I'm feeling this way,” Acres said.

Those students could be referred to the county sheriff’s mental health team or to I Matter, Colorado’s new free therapy program for young people.

“I think that was a huge shift we saw during the pandemic of it's okay aid to not be okay. And it's okay to talk about it. And here are the supports that are readily available,” Acres said.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is open 24/7.

Email: lpaterson@insideenergy.org; leighpaterson@rmpbs.org