State Legislature

Suicide prevention commission proposed

State's high suicide rate prompts action by legislators

Vic Vela
Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, listens as Susan Marine testifies in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Feb. 6. Marine, whose two sons died as a result of suicide, testified in support of Newell's bill to create a state Suicide Prevention Commission.
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Mountains and sunshine and healthy and active lifestyles aside, Colorado holds a dubious distinction that isn't a part of the state's tourism campaign.

Colorado ranks among the highest in the nation for suicides. In 2012, more Coloradans died as a result of taking their own lives than those who were killed in a car wreck. And suicide is the leading cause of death among young persons between the ages of 10 and 34.

"Despite being one the most beautiful states in the country, we have one of the highest suicide rates in the country — and consistently," said state Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton.

The question is why?

Newell and Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada, are hoping that a bill they are co-sponsoring can help the state get to the bottom of that issue.

The two lawmakers are behind Senate Bill 88, which would create the Suicide Prevention Commission. The commission would be made up of about 20 people who represent various sectors of society, including those with professional backgrounds that are relevant to suicide prevention.

The commission would advise the current state Office of Suicide Prevention in developing priorities and action plans having to do with curbing suicides. The commission would also make annual recommendations to the governor's office.

"We're hoping that, with this commission, we will prioritize (suicide prevention) and bring this up as an issue that we need to address and not be silent on anymore," Newell said.

Newell said that the staffing inside the Office of Suicide Prevention — which is made up of one person — is inadequate and needs more help.

"I've been asking for more resources for that office for two years and haven't got it," she said. "He's been collecting data as much as possible but he doesn't have time to analyze it.

Newell said much of the commission's work will be to focus on figuring out why Colorado's suicide rate is so high. Newell pointed to several possible problem areas, such as the state's large number of military veterans, the lack of access to mental health services in rural areas, and the Western U.S. culture of "rugged individualism," one that doesn't always translate to people seeking help.

Kraft-Tharp said that it's particularly disturbing to see young people committing suicide. She talked about the recent incident at Jefferson County's Standley Lake High School, where a student doused himself with gasoline before deliberately set himself on fire.

"This happens in our own neighborhoods, right around the corner," Kraft-Tharp said. "And we need to figure out why is affects our state."

Susan Marine, a board member of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado, testified before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Feb. 6 in support of the bill. Marine's two sons took their own lives, including one who was an assistant city attorney in Thornton.

"My passion of being an advocate stems from my own loss and my hope that I can spare other parents from tragedies," Marine told committee members.

But Newell's bill was met with skepticism from Republicans who wondered why this effort needs to be supported with state dollars.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, pointed to the bill's fiscal note, which indicates that the commission will come with an annual price tag of at least $80,000.

"It tells me that you want the government to run this," Lundberg told Newell. "I think you'll find that this is just the tip of the iceberg in the fiscal note on what resources will be required."

And Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, wondered whether he was being asked to support a bill that creates more government, but doesn't produce results.

"Are we building a bureaucracy that creates an entity that has no action?" Crowder said.

The committee will vote on the bill at a future hearing.