Youth mental health campaign grows – Springs-based confidential text crisis line expands statewide
BY DEBBIE KELLEY
These posters are part of NAMI-Colorado Springs’ Below the Surface campaign that’s now expanding statewide.
“My life is full of pressure and expectations. Sometimes emptiness lies just below the surface.”
“Parents care about all the wrong things. Sometimes hurt lies just below the surface.”
“My good grades are never quite good enough. Sometimes anxiety lies just below the surface.”
Posters with these and other messages from a new push to combat teen suicide and help adolescents deal with mental health issues are being displayed in schools across the Pikes Peak region.
“Our intent is to reflect how a kid might be feeling so that when they’re in their own head and worried about how they’re going to get through something, they see a message that seems true and authentic and will take the next step,” said Kirk Woundy, spokesman for the Colorado Springs office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Now, the homegrown campaign is going statewide.
Created last school year by NAMIColorado Springs in response to record-high numbers of teen suicides in El Paso County in 2015 and 2016, the Below the Surface campaign steers kids dealing with bullying, peer pressure, troubled home situations, depression, anxiety, LGBTQ issues and other problems to a free, confidential text crisis line.
Seven days a week, 24 hours a day teens can text TALK to 38255 and connect with a trained professional or peer who has experienced something similar to what the caller is going through. Teens can remain anonymous throughout the conversation.
NAMI-Colorado Springs received a $50,000 grant from the Colorado Springs Health Foundation and raised an additional $25,000 in matching funds to activate the campaign.
Teams of students from different schools helped develop the messaging, which along with posters includes stickers and business-card size messages.
“There were misconceptions, such as there isn’t a real person at the other end, or this isn’t going to help me,” Woundy said.
NAMI-Colorado Springs also did presentations at schools about how the line works and why students might want to use it.
“It’s meant to serve as an upstream approach to dealing with mental health issues, as much as it is a life preserver for when things are looking really fraught,” Woundy said.
This year, 16 local schools are promoting the text line, he said, with more in the works. A grant from El Paso County Public Health is paying for outreach to rural eastern plains schools.
Text line usage tripled in the spring near two pilot schools, Atlas Preparatory Academy in Harrison School District 2 and Manitou Springs High School in Manitou Springs School District 14.
Posters hang in discreet places at Atlas Prep, said Executive Director Brittney Stroh, where students can read them less obviously and not be judged by their peers.
Among the benefits, “It started to address some issues — sexuality, depression, personal academic performance, immigrant status — that perhaps students don’t feel they can talk about with their parents,” Stroh said. “The texting gives them an outlet.”
Students in a focus group at Atlas Prep said they appreciated the opportunity to have their voices heard and provide input into the program.
“There was an empowerment component,” Stroh said. “Teenagers aren’t necessarily actively involved in the design, implementation or giving feedback.”
The campaign caught the attention of the Colorado Department of Human Services because youth advisers were able to say what they wanted and needed, said Cristen Bates, director of strategy, policy and communications in the department’s Office of Behavioral Health.
“Working with people who represent the audience you’re targeting can transform a campaign,” she said.
The idea “comes from the understanding for these young people that there’s one way you present to the public, but just below the surface, they’re battling a lot of serious challenges,” Bates said. “This campaign represents that feeling that’s unique to younger people.”
Last month, after paying NAMI-Colorado Springs a $15,000 one-time licensing fee, the state’s Human Services department expanded the campaign statewide.
Ads promoting the text line are appearing on Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube, featuring students telling real stories of how suicide has impacted their lives. A website, https://need2text.com, also explains the program. Schools can obtain the posters, stickers and notecards for free.
Already, the effort is producing results, Bates said.
There’s been a 72 percent increase in text outreach to the crisis line, she said, in comparing last month to October of last year.
The statewide text line has been operational since early 2016, but had been slow to catch on before the Below the Surface campaign, she said.
Of those using the text line, about 40 percent are under age 21, which tells Bates the messaging is reaching the target audience.
Texting is the No. 1 way teens prefer to communicate, according to a study by Common Sense Research, thus the reason for the texting crisis line.
Users can “chat” via text about suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, general mental health well-being, anxiety and depression, or they can ask for assistance in helping a friend or family member experiencing such issues.
“This is an extra layer in a system of supports for students,” said Atlas Prep’s Stroh. “I think it’s a good entry point for schools to talk about and provide support for mental health. It’s not necessarily going to solve large problems, but for students who aren’t ready to speak, this is a method they are more comfortable with.”
In El Paso County, family stress has been identified as a top concern among teens using the line, with “educational performance often stated as the primary reason for the familial conflict,” according to a report from the August/September usage period. Teens are struggling with how to “fix” a low mood.
Most users have known someone who has committed suicide, which remains a concern statewide, as Colorado continues to rank among the top states in the nation for suicide.
Healthy Kids Colorado data show that 14 percent of Colorado youths admit to having made a suicide plan in the last year, and 8 percent attempted suicide at least once in the last year.
“One of the reasons this came out of El Paso County and was so powerful was the numbers of suicides in schools,” Bates said. “Losing a person at that young age really rocks the community.”
The text line is managed by Colorado Crisis Services, founded in 2014 in response to the Aurora Theater shooting through the state initiative, Strengthening Colorado’s Mental Health System: A Plan to Safeguard All Coloradans.
For those who don’t want to text, a toll-free number, 1-844-493-TALK, is available for anyone in crisis or anyone dealing with a crisis to speak with a professional. Online chat services are available from 4 p.m. to midnight daily at coloradocrisisservices.org.
Contact the writer: 719-476-1656