DENVER — Suicide rates are on the rise among communities of color in Colorado. An annual report by the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention found that while the state’s overall suicide rates have remained relatively constant over the past few years, there have been concerning increases among historically marginalized populations in Colorado.
Last year, 1,294 people in the state died by suicide according to state data. Denver, Broomfield and El Paso counties experienced the highest rates of suicide in the state.
“We know that rates have risen and then Black and brown people of color, their rates have risen especially notably,” said Vincent Atchity, the president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado.
He believes the pandemic has played a big role in the mental health of these communities.
“The communities that are particularly vulnerable to stress are going to feel exacerbated stress whenever the rest of our community is stressed,” Atchity said
From 2015 to 2020, Colorado lost 224 Black residents to suicide, according to the state report. The highest rates of suicide were among men.
The report also found that half of the suicide deaths in the state involved firearms, while poisoning and overdoses were the more common methods used in suicide attempts.
Along with feeling higher levels of stress, Atchity says people of color are less likely to seek mental health help. Men in particular are more reluctant to ask for treatment due to some societal stigmas. They are also less willing to call 911 or other emergency numbers for mental health help.
“There is less trust of the response system and a greater awareness of the risk of being responded to by law enforcement,”Atchity said.
That’s where the From the Heart Foundation comes in. The community organization helps with feeding programs, mentorships and mental health.
Founder Dr. Halim Ali said he started focusing on his own mental health a few years ago and realized how many others were struggling with mental health issues during the pandemic.
The group started offering as online wellness recovery action plan workshop to talk to the community about violence and suicide prevention. The classes started with a couple dozen people and quickly doubled and then tripled in size. Now, there’s even a waiting list.
Most recently, the group teamed up with two other foundations to host a youth gun violence awareness and suicide prevention wellness weekend.
“I see how mental health is at the root, is at the cause. Gun violence, suicidal ideation, that is not the cause. These are the effects of a bigger cause,” Ali said.
Ali says the thing he has constantly heard from the youth he has worked at is that they have a lot of anger but don’t have a way to express themselves.
Remote schooling during the pandemic, facing stressful home lives and losing out on social connections also contributed to that anger, Ali says.
“They’re throwing chairs at teachers in school, they’re fighting each other, they’re shooting each other, they’re hurting themselves because they don’t have those healthy outlet for a release,” he said.
The organization is now working on a movie to take a closer look at some of the stressors and coming up with a curriculum its planning on unveiling in 2022 to focus on wellness and recovery called HEAT, which stands for habilitation, environment, accountability and therapy.
The goal is to help the teens and others in the community find the tools to express themselves in a healthy manner and ask for help if they need it.
“Don’t be scared to ask for help. At the Saturday session I said, ‘By show of hands, how many people in here have trouble asking for help,’ and everyone’s hand went up,” he said.
Ali worries that teens in particular view asking for help as a sign of weakness.
Atchity, meanwhile, believes there’s also a provider problem since there is a shortage of mental health professionals in the state but also fewer minorities or people with similar life experiences working in the field who can relate to these teens.
Unfortunately, that’s an issue he doesn’t believe is going away any time soon. So, for now, organizations like From the Heart say they are doing what they can to reach out these communities, hoping to prevent more families from losing a loved one to suicide.