It seemed that Alexandre Quiros had the world at his feet — a 3.8 grade-point-average, a scholarship to Rochester Institute of Technology, an upcoming commission in the Air Force.
But Quiros was found dead in his dorm room earlier this spring, and the coroner ruled it a suicide. The Air Force Academy was stunned, and his mother Ksenia so distraught that she also committed suicide — leaving the community in shock and grieving for the husband and son left to pick up the pieces.
Unfortunately, the family isn’t alone. In El Paso County, families are reeling from the shock of five teen suicides within weeks of each other — children 14 and 15 who ended their lives as the school year drew to a close.
According to statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one person dies from suicide every 15.8 minutes. It’s the 11th-leading cause of death overall and the third-leading cause of death among youth and young adults aged 15-24.
Access to comprehensive mental health care for teenagers and young adults is problematic in Colorado Springs. And the results from problems surrounding treatment are felt by the entire area, not just their grieving families.
“All too often, they end up in jail,” said Lori Jarvis, executive director of the Colorado Springs chapter of NAMI. “It used to be that our main focus was fighting the stigma that comes attached to a mental illness diagnosis. While we’re still working on that, we’re also really focused on helping people who are in jail unfairly. They aren’t criminals; they are mentally ill.”
The numbers bear out the stark reality: In 2006, 2,034 children were incarcerated in Colorado’s juvenile justice system. Nationally, approximately 70 percent of youth in juvenile justice systems experienced mental health disorders, with 20 percent experiencing a severe mental health condition.
The mental health court, one of several special-purpose courts in the Fourth Judicial District, offers people with mental illness an alternative to jail.
“It gives us hope,” she said, “that some things are changing.”
But they might not be changing fast enough for the 52,000 children in Colorado who are living with serious mental health conditions. That’s where organizations like NAMI step in, advocating on behalf of families and children living with mental illness. The group works to educate families about help that’s available and how to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness, which frequently start in early adolescence.
“It’s hard to know the signs and symptoms — is this normal teenage behavior? Why are they acting out?” said Jarvis, whose own daughter lives with a mental illness, leading her to get more involved in advocacy and education. “Too often, the medicine they’re given isn’t approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) for children. And getting the dose right can be difficult; their brains and bodies change so rapidly at that age.”
And frustrated parents can make the wrong choices.
“All this ‘tough love’ advice, that doesn’t work with teenagers dealing with mental illness,” she said. “They have a brain chemistry disorder. Being tougher won’t change that.”
Giving up won’t help either, she said, noting that mentally ill teens can often find themselves living on the streets.
“We work to engage parents, to keep them going, give them strength to stay involved with their kids, especially when they’re misbehaving,” Jarvis said. “These kids, the ones who act out, need their parents to be involved and engaged.”
They also offer family-to-family programs that help parents address the issues, understand the underlying illness, while providing a support system from other parents struggling with the same issues.
“It’s not science,” Jarvis said. “But I believe these programs saved our relationship with our daughter. We didn’t understand why she was behaving the way she was. We just didn’t know how. But talking to other parents made a world of difference.”
But it doesn’t end with families. Jarvis believes it really does take a village to work with children diagnosed with mental illness.
“We’re launching a program in the fall aimed at middle and high school students,” she said. “We’ll have a young adult, diagnosed with anxiety and depression, talk about what life is like when dealing with a mental illness. Someone young, under 30, who kids can relate to. And we’ll also have a family member who will talk about what it’s like from their perspective. It’s all about raising awareness, educating and letting people know what’s out there.”
“All this ‘tough love’ advice, that doesn’t work with teenagers dealing with mental illness. They have a brain chemistry disorder. Being tougher won’t change that.” – Lori Jarvis, NAMI
While organizations like NAMI are working toward providing a normal life for teens with mental illness, other groups are working to provide treatment. AspenPointe, a nonprofit based in Colorado Springs, provides assistance for families and adolescents from Park, Teller and El Paso counties. As the major Medicaid provider for mental health, AspenPointe assists families with few resources of their own.
Under the Affordable Care Act, the state increased its Medicaid rolls, which increased AspenPointe’s patient numbers. According to its website, the patient load has grown by 50 percent since the ACA passed.
“According to some studies, as many as 70 percent of primary care visits stem from behavioral and social issues,” said AspenPointe President and CEO Dr. Mick Pattinson on the organization’s website. “While patients typically present with a physical health complaint, data illustrates that underlying behavioral health needs including mental health or substance abuse issues are often triggering these visits.”
AspenPointe counselors are working with Peak Vista Community Health Centers and Colorado Springs Health Partners to provide more holistic treatment for people who have mental illness — diagnosing them sooner, getting them help more quickly.
So there have been positive steps in the right direction. Still, families and teens are struggling. Even as knowledge erases the stigma of mental illness, and more people seek help — there is a lack of doctors and psychiatrists needed to provide that help.
It takes more than a village; it requires commitment, education, training and resources.