By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Some of the young people used haunting phrases to talk about their thoughts of suicide.
They spoke of “erasing” themselves rather than living with the struggles of coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) and facing rejection as a result.
“I’d rather cease to exist that have to go through all this by myself, have to lay in bed every night knowing that who I was telling my mom I was was a lie,” one young person said in a documentary called Rainbow Warriors that Denver advocates made in their efforts to fight youth suicide in the LGBTQ community.
Said another: “It would be a lot less pain for (my family) and me to just disappear than for me to come out as queer.”
While Colorado health officials long have known that the state has an intolerably high suicide rate, until recently, they could not quantify how severe the suicide risk was among young people who were trying to figure out their gender identity or those who were trying to sort out their sexual attractions.
In 2013, for the first time, the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey asked young respondents about sexual preference and gender identity. The survey takes place every other year and asks a sample of middle and high school students to anonymously answer questions about an array of health topics.
The correlation between kids who identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual and those who had considered suicide was utterly stunning and helped suicide prevention advocates to step up their work among at-risk students.
But now, some members of the Colorado State Board of Education are considering a major change in the survey, which could dramatically cut the number of students who take it and make it much harder for health and education officials to obtain key data to help young people.
The education board is slated to consider making changes to the survey during its monthly meeting, which starts today. Some board members want to require all students and parents to opt-in to the survey rather than the current structure, which allows local school districts to control the process. In most districts, students take the anonymous survey unless they opt out.
While some board members contend that parents should have more control over their students’ survey participation, health experts say families can already opt out and that the survey is absolutely essential to keeping Colorado adolescents healthy.
Suicide risk is just one of many health issues that the survey highlights. But, it’s a vital issue among teens, especially those who are LGBT or queer — an umbrella term popular among young people that describes people exploring their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Of the 40,000 students who took the Healthy Kids Colorado survey in 2013, 24 percent reported feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in the previous year that they had stopped some of their usual activities. The question flags depression. Among students who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual, the group of respondents who said yes more than doubled to 59 percent.
Among all the young people, nearly 15 percent reported seriously considering suicide while 6.6 percent said they had tried to kill themselves at least once in the past year. Again, those numbers were far higher among students who reported that they were lesbian, gay or bisexual. Among those students, 49 percent said they had thought of attempting suicide and 28 percent said they had tried to kill themselves at least once during the previous year.
Jarrod Hindman is the violence and suicide prevention manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. He said the new findings from the Healthy Kids Survey were startling and revealing.
“The data are troubling. We’ve always known from national research (that LGBT students are at risk) but this really solidifies it,” Hindman said.
“One of my priorities is to make data-driven fundraising decisions,” he said. “We need all the data we can get our hands on — including the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey — to help us prioritize our funding. I don’t have a large enough budget to provide resources for everyone in the state.”
Among the high-risk groups that especially need help are LGBTQ young people, veterans and middle-aged men.
Armed with the new data on LGBTQ youth, Hindman can now apply for federal funding that Colorado used to have, but has not won the last couple of years. He must describe how LGBTQ young people are doing and had to fudge in the past, using county level data from Boulder, for instance, or data from other states that gathered it, like Massachusetts.
The federal government agency that oversees substance abuse and mental health issues provided funding that Colorado won from 2006 to 2012. The funding last year would have brought Colorado $736,000 per year for five years. That would amount to a huge boost to the $460,000 that the suicide prevention office gets from state funds each year.
“It’s super-competitive. This year, I can finally include (specific information) on lesbian, gay and bisexual (young people),” Hindman said.
Before the alarming data emerged from the 2013 survey, Colorado’s suicide prevention office had already targeted four groups that would get the bulk of the state’s funding: LGBT youth, Hispanic and Latino youth (especially girls), older adults and military veterans.
Those priorities led them to give a grant to an advocacy group called the Colorado Anti-Violence Program, a group that runs a hotline to prevent violence targeting the LGBTQ population and works to prevent suicide among young people.
The advocates used some of the funding to create the Rainbow Warriors documentary. They have screened it across the state and at national conventions and do school visits to try to educate young people about the struggles that LGBTQ peers can face. (Click here to watch the documentary.)
Advocates at the Anti-Violence Program view attempts to undermine the Health Kids Survey as a direct attack on LGBTQ young people.
“Opting in sounds reasonable,” said Eleanor Maren Dewey, co-executive director at the Anti-Violence Program and a trans woman.
“But they’re doing this (considering changes to the survey) to create an extra barrier on purpose because these questions have been asked. It’s all a guise to make sure that LGBTQ people aren’t included in research or surveys,” she said.
Maren-Dewey came out when she was 15 and believes suicide risk is an epidemic among young LGBTQ people.
“The reality is that suicide and depression are symptoms of greater injustices in our community. We see high rates of homelessness, school dropouts, arrests — especially of trans youth — and higher rates of sexual violence and AIDS. (Daily) young people are faced with traumatic event after traumatic event.”
Health advocates working on a broad array of issues affecting young people say understanding health disparities is absolutely essential to improving teen health.
And they see the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey as the key tool for their work.
“I’ve never seen such a broad coalition (come together) on an issue,” said Alexis Weightman, director of policy for the Colorado Health Foundation, one of the groups trying to encourage the education board to preserve the Healthy Kids Survey.
Along with foundations, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which administers the survey, is fighting to keep the survey intact, as are children’s advocacy groups, local public health agencies, school districts, student groups and parent-teacher organizations.
“The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey is the best source of health and behavioral data for middle and high school students in Colorado,” Weightman said. “We rely very heavily on the data provided by the survey to guide our work and our funding decisions. We give out a lot of grant dollars to school districts around the state.”
Weightman said the survey is the primary source for data on adolescents for the foundation’s annual Health Report Card. It’s also key for the Colorado Children’s Campaign’s annual KIDS COUNT report.
The survey can also result in direct funding for regions of the state or school districts. Weightman said that she looks, for instance, for regions where students have poor nutrition and aren’t getting physical activity.
“We can boost it by using some grant support,” she said. “We certainly are looking at student mental health data and the suicide prevention data as well.
“It’s absolutely critical,” Weightman said. “If we don’t have the data, we won’t know how to direct our efforts and resources.”
Among the young people who are at the highest risk for depression and suicide, the survey results may actually lead to change that can save lives.
Mimi Madrid-Puj, 26, first came to the Colorado Anti-Violence Program seeking refuge from sexual abuse and is now the interim director of organizing and does school visits to talk to younger people who may be struggling.
She recalls one middle-school visit where a 10-year-old boy had a sudden understanding of how LGBTQ people can feel.
“He was on stage and said, ‘I didn’t know that LGBTQ folks wanted to die because of the way that other people treat them.’ He said it out loud. He said it on stage, which was really beautiful. Those of us who are LGBTQ folks, we don’t suffer for being LGBTQ folks. We suffer because of the way we’re treated,” said Madrid-Puj.
Madrid-Puj likes to call herself a “proud, two-spirited person of color.” She’s Latina, originally from El Paso, Texas and likes the reference to “two-spirited,” a term indigenous people used to describe people who had atypical gender or sexual preferences.
Madrid-Puj and her coworkers at the Anti-Violence center use art and storytelling to help young people. Madrid-Puj was among those who shared her story in the Rainbow Warriors documentary. She said they made the film as a direct response to the “It Gets Better” movement. While they supported the idea of telling young people that life will get better, they wanted to give them immediate survival tools “to make it better today.”
“You don’t have to wait until you’re 30 or 40 for life to get better,” Madrid-Puj said. “We see young people with a lot of experience of surviving.”
In the documentary, Madrid-Puj shares how she overcame her thoughts of suicide.
“What kept me from suicide — I’m an older sister. My brother had just been born. He was an angel. My mind and body and spirit had been destroyed. But I still had my baby brother,” she said in the film.
One of the messages the young people preach is: “You’re not alone. No matter how bad your life is, there will always be somebody who loves you.”
They talk regularly about suicide and accept that depression may be chronic among LGBTQ youth, but they can build tools to stave off the despondency.
“We try to build community, build circles, build family,” Madrid-Puj said. “For a lot of young queer and trans folks, the goal is to make safer places where they can be themselves and be real.”
The key, says Eleanor Dewey is to model and teach suicide survival.
“You’re hard pressed to find folks in the community who haven’t been impacted by suicide, their friends, friends of friends. They themselves are survivors of suicide attempts. We’re trying to shift the narrative around LGBTQ young.
“This is an issue that we will continue to grapple with. We need to give them all the tools to create resiliency,” she said. “We’re about being real and having the willingness and confidence to ask for help.”