The year 2015 was particularly difficult for Cassandra Walton. She had lost a close friend to suicide. During this time, she was also taking a break from her social work job to care for her daughter, who was struggling with her own mental health.
Walton felt compelled to get involved with suicide prevention on a local level. She filled out a volunteer application online and began working with the Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention Partnership. Her first major contribution was a research project that the organization had been contracted to do with El Paso County Public Health, called “Teen Think Tanks.”
Today, Walton is PPSPP’s executive director, a position she’s held since 2019. It is Walton who helps develop, facilitate and oversee each
aspect of PPSPP’s program.
PPSPP is the only organization in the area that focuses solely on suicide prevention, said Walton. The nonprofit addresses suicide through education, intervention and postvention.
The stigma surrounding mental health makes it difficult for people to be open about it.
“That is one of our biggest challenges,” said Walton. “And then the other thing that really creates a challenge for us is this misconception that talking about suicide is dangerous.” Research shows that talking about suicide prevents suicide; it’s a critical conversation.
“Reducing stigma” isn’t just a token phrase for Walton and PPSPP. They are taking tangible action: encouraging people in leadership positions to talk about their personal mental health struggles, building increased peer support, and getting media partners to present stories showing that it is possible to effectively manage mental health.
“I don’t think anyone can not get behind wanting to save a life,” said Walton. “Every day, I see my daughter with her mental health struggles, and I know that I want her to be alive. And I know that there are a number of things that each of us in this community can do to keep her alive. And I think about that with anyone who is in a similar situation.”
Walton is proud of how far PPSPP has come. Last year, they served over 5,000 individuals. “I think that we are really evolving into a resource that our community really trusts,” said Walton. She’s also proud of the increased collaboration among El Paso County’s nonprofits.
But there’s still work to be done, noted Walton. Over the next couple years, she wants El Paso County to take steps toward implementing a solidified suicide prevention community response plan.
“My hope is that we can live in a community where there is curiosity before consequence,” said Walton, “and that we can come to a place where we have effectively reduced the stigma around mental health, and that we greatly increase the number of people who are accessing services.”
There’s beauty in suicide prevention, Walton reminds us: “It’s not all death and sadness. We also get to help people choose to live, and go through that process, which is really just beautiful."