|May 15-21, 2008
The Second Wind Fund gives depressed teens another chance at happiness and life
by Pamela White
Jeff Lamontagne just wanted to get his church more involved in the surrounding community. Together with a handful of others, he was searching for the right cause, a way for his congregation to make a difference.
“Our church frankly wasn’t doing that much. A church needs to do something more for the community,” he says.
Once he started searching, he didn’t have to look far.
Next door to his church at Green Mountain High School, located in Lakewood, there had recently been three teen suicides. He and other members of the committee decided to speak with representatives of the school to see what they could do to help. And then tragedy struck again, as a fourth student ended his life.
Fueled by a sense of urgency, Lamontagne and other members of his church held an outdoor walk to raise money to enable Green Mountain students who were depressed and at risk of suicide to receive psychological treatment. They had no idea at the time that they’d taken the first steps toward establishing a nonprofit that would become a model for suicide prevention nationwide.
That was five years ago. Now active in Jefferson, Denver, Douglas, Arapahoe, Adams and Park counties, The Second Wind Fund
has helped more than 1,200 teenagers turn away from despair toward renewed hope, bridging the gap for young people whose families can’t afford mental-health care.
It’s a service Colorado desperately needs. Ranked No. 1 nationwide for teen depression and No. 8 for teen suicide, Colorado lags behind most states when it comes to funding for mental-health care. But, although Second Wind used to have an affiliate in Boulder, that affiliate recently closed its doors, leaving the city’s teens at a disadvantage. Some local residents are working to resurrect the program, aiming to give Second Wind a second chance in Boulder County.
Rocky Mountain low
When it comes to understanding teenagers, Leisha Conners Bauer takes a somewhat unusual approach: She talks to them.
Every other year, Conners Bauer, director of the Boulder County Healthy Youth Alliance (BCYA), oversees the administration of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The survey asks teens to respond frankly about a range of issues from depression to drug and alcohol use to sexuality. And the results raise troubling questions.
In 2007, 23 percent of teenagers in the Boulder Valley School District reported feeling “sad or hopeless.” Although that number is down from 30 percent in 2001, that’s still almost a quarter of the district’s students who admit to grappling with depression, Conners Bauer says.
And although incidence of depression seems to be down, the number of teens who’ve reported attempting suicide has increased from 9.1 percent in 2001 to 12.8 percent in 2007.
“We’re not sure why,” Conners Bauer says. “We haven’t really had a chance to analyze the data yet.”
BCYA held its most recent “youth summit” two weeks ago and hasn’t yet finished sifting through the information. But two years ago at the last youth summit, teens reported that their stress and depression are largely the result of feeling pressure, Conners Bauer says. That pressure isn’t just the product of striving to excel in school, but comes from all areas of their lives, from their interaction with parents and peers to athletics to future careers.
Although not all teens who experience stress succumb to depression, some find themselves overwhelmed and struggling to cope, eventually becoming clinically depressed. Unfortunately, recognizing teen depression isn’t always easy. Parents often have a difficult time distinguishing between normal teenage angst and depression, Conners Bauer says.
Jan Hittelman, a licensed psychologist and director of Boulder Psychological Services, says that teen depression can often manifest itself in irritability, misbehavior or anger.
“That makes it difficult for even the most attentive and well-adjusted parent to recognize,” Hittelman says.
Often, parents will bring a teen in for therapy because the teen is exhibiting defiant behavior or anger, but Hittelman will discover that the heart of the problem is depression.
Some of the things he considers when evaluating a teenager include the amount of time they’ve felt unhappy and the level to which their emotions are disrupting their ability to function. He also looks at a teenager’s interests and whether or not the teen has lost interest in things that once brought him or her enjoyment.
A recent study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that teens in Colorado suffer the highest rates of depression in the nation. Colorado has the highest percentage in the nation of 12- to 17-year-olds who reported having at least one major depressive episode in the prior year. The state also ranked fourth in reported alcohol dependence and drug use among teens.
It might be tempting to dismiss this single study, except that straight statistics have long placed Colorado at or toward the top of the list when it comes to teen depression and two related factors — drug and alcohol use and suicide.
“It’s really difficult to know the reason,” Hittelman says. “We can only speculate.”
The Rocky Mountain states in general tend to rank higher on depression and suicide than states in other regions, he says.
Jarrod Hindman, program manager of the Office of Suicide Prevention for the state’s Prevention Services Division, heads the only state-funded suicide-prevention office in the nation. Created in 2000 by Gov. Romer in response to similar grim statistics, the office oversees suicide-prevention efforts for the entire state. But even after eight years of work on the issue statewide, Colorado experts can only make educated guesses as to why depression and suicide remain such problems here.
Larger rural populations result in greater social isolation, Hindman says. And smaller towns often have very limited resources for mental-health care.
“If you live in a tiny Eastern Colorado town, you might have to drive 100 miles to go see a mental-health professional or even to see a primary care physician, so it’s more difficult,” Hindman says. “And in rural communities the stigma [surrounding mental-health issues] is even greater because everybody knows everybody’s business, and you’re fearful to have people see your car parked outside a therapist’s office or at a mental-health facility.”
In addition, a lot of Colorado’s residents moved here relatively recently for work, leaving their support systems of family and friends behind — a form of isolation that tends to impact urban areas, where most suicides occur.
“We also live by the western mentality, where if you’re suffering you suck it up, you pick yourself up by your bootstraps,” he says.
“Depression is an illness of the brain, so it’s not like fixing a broken window. It actually requires some intervention, just like a broken arm.”
A lot of parents don’t want to address their teens’ apparent depression, hoping it will sort itself out or go away if given time, Hindman says.
“You’ve got to be proactive,” he says. “As time consuming and as painful as it is, you have to be proactive, and you have to give options, and you have to be there in an empathetic and supportive way, even when what you want to do is shake them and tell them to snap out of it.”
Left untreated, depression can kill.
A matter of resources
No one — not even the experts — can explain exactly why one person who’s struggling with depression will choose to end his or her life and another won’t. Statistics offer information, but even put together, the pieces offer an incomplete puzzle.
More females than males try to kill themselves, but males die at much higher rates, Hindman says.
Some observers attempt to explain the difference by speculating that female self-harming behavior, from cutting to suicide attempts, is more a cry for help than an actual desire not to live, whereas males who seek to end their lives are serious about their desire to die. But, again, this theory is little more than speculation.
There’s also a slight correlation between drug and alcohol abuse and suicide.
A much greater correlation exists between suicide and teens who are struggling to face the truth about their sexual identities. Gay, lesbian and transgendered teens have by some estimates a 30-percent higher risk of suicide than other teens.
But experts discourage parents from taking solace in statistics.
“One of the main points we try to stress is that lots of kids from otherwise healthy families, parents couldn’t love them more, little to no alcohol use, straight kids, good kids, athletic — suicide,” Lamontagne says. “It really affects kids across the board. There are trends and correlations, but they’re not incredibly strong or exclusive.”
Like breast cancer — which is sometimes associated with genetic risk or lifestyle factors but which can impact anyone, including men — suicide can strike any family.
Here’s the bad news: In Colorado, suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens. But here’s the good news: Suicide is preventable.
However, finding the right resources to help teens isn’t always easy.
Despite its office of suicide prevention, Colorado ranks 33rd nationwide for money spent on mental-health care and 49th in funding for drug and alcohol treatment programs. But, although most suicides in the state impact the elderly, the bulk of resources for suicide intervention are focused on teens.
In Boulder County, intervention first begins in the schools, where counselors keep a close eye on students and intervene when students either self-report that they’re depressed and thinking of suicide or when a teenager’s friends express their concern to a teacher or counselor. Teens who are deemed to be an immediate danger to themselves are hospitalized for psychological evaluation, with or without their parents’ consent. Those who are deemed to need counseling face a different path — one that can involve frustrating hours on the phone trying to get a call back from a therapist and struggling to find a therapist on the family’s insurance plan who is truly an expert on teen depression.
Hittelman’s organization, Boulder Psychological Services, a for-profit, can help to direct parents and teens to the resources they need, in addition to offering counseling through Boulder Psychological Group for both individuals and families.
But families without financial resources often find themselves trying to make an impossible decision between seeking help for a depressed teen and putting food on the table. Some are eligible to receive help through the Mental Health Center of Boulder County, a private nonprofit that provides mental-health care to people of all ages on a sliding-fee scale. As the county’s mental-health provider for Medicaid, the Mental Health Center is required to see people with Medicaid within a week. The center also treats a limited number of Medicare patients and medically indigent people; however, they must be diagnosed with a major mental illness or anxiety disorder.
Low-income families without health insurance can also receive help from the Mental Health Center, but they often end up waiting four or five weeks to be seen, says Jane Kellogg, a licensed professional counselor with the Mental Health Center’s child access and screening program.
Families who do have health insurance for mental-health treatment are not eligible for care at the Mental Health Center, even if all of the therapists on their health plan have stopped taking new clients.
This complicated scenario can leave worried parents and even school counselors feeling that all of the help available amounts to no help at all.
Says Lamontagne: “For a kid at risk of suicide, it’s almost a moral outrage that that’s the situation, and only because of financial reasons.”
Bridging the gap
This is the niche into which Lamontagne and The Second Wind Fund inadvertently stumbled five years ago.
The program takes referrals from school counselors and sometimes calls from parents, examining only two criteria: psychological need and financial need. Once staff at Second Wind confirm through contact with schools that these two criteria are met, the organization immediately matches the teen with a therapist. Rather than waiting several weeks for a first appointment and lingering weeks between appointments, teens are seen within a week. Often, families make their first contact with a therapist within 24 hours of referral.
Rather than being hurried through a limited number of sessions or having their appointments spaced weeks apart, teens are seen twice weekly if necessary and can receive up to 20 sessions paid for through the program.
“You can imagine the difference between those two access scenarios when school counselors or families call,” Lamontagne says. “It’s just night and day — or, in some cases, life and death.”
It’s not only easier on families, but on therapists and school counselors, as well.
“It’s a very user-friendly process,” says Michele Campbell, a former school guidance counselor who now works as a therapist for Second Wind. “Guidance counselors just keep reporting that they love using it. It’s user-friendly. It’s easy. There’s not any bureaucratic red tape to get accepted; it’s just those two criteria.”
Campbell remembers when Lamontagne first came to her school to tell officials about the program. They had about six therapists at the time. When Campbell went into private practice, she became one of only eight. Now there are more than 100, all of them experts
in dealing with teen depression and teen suicide.
The quick response is critical when it comes to teens, Campbell says.
“When a teenager is feeling deeply depressed, they’re feeling hopeless, they’re feeling helpless and they’re feeling completely disconnected and lost,” she says. “When you’ve got that combination of feelings, they feel they’ve got no place to go, that suicide might be the only option. The quick response is so critical because then they can get an immediate support system and just people outside of their circle helping them and supporting them and getting them out of their own heads, which is so important.”
Teens lack the coping skills that adults use to help them get through life’s dark moments, she says.
Lamontagne says that often depressed teens are bottoming out for the first time and don’t realize that things will get better. They’re dealing with real-life problems, often for the first time, and don’t have the experience to understand that things will get better again. That’s what parents, school counselors and therapists can provide for them — the skills they need to cope and a vision of hope for their futures.
The fact that Second Wind occupies such a unique niche, bridging the gap between need and treatment, resulted in its rapid growth from a program that benefited one school to a program that’s a model for others around the state and the nation.
“That’s all it was meant to be — a one-time thing,” Lamontagne says. “And then we found the service we’d created started being demanded by more and more and more schools. One thing led to another and, ultimately, it became my full-time job and we have a staff now.”
Far from a one-time church fund-raiser, Second Wind is now one of the largest mental-health providers for teens in the state. It has no religious affiliation beyond its history, and participating families and teens are not required to be of any given faith.
Lamontagne says he has no doubt that Second Wind works and that the program has saved lives. Since 2003, the program has helped 1,200 teens — and all are still alive.
“We receive feedback from school counselors and parents time to time saying, ‘If not for your program, I really think this kid would have attempted suicide,’” he says.
The kids themselves report that the therapy they received through Second Wind was essential for their recovery.
But the biggest indication that the program works is that indisputable fact that in counties where Second Wind is active, the teen suicide rate has declined. Once ranked sixth in the nation for teen suicide, Colorado is now ranked eighth. It’s a slight decrease, but every life saved matters to Lamontagne.
“You can’t count a specific suicide that didn’t happen,” he says. “But when we look over the course of the year or two years [at] annual statistics, and compare them to previous years, we have seen the youth suicide rate go down by significant numbers, and there are county coroners who would back us up on that.”
Hope on the horizon
“We have resources,” says Kathy Valentine, chairperson of the HOPE Coalition, a local nonprofit organization that raises awareness about depression and suicide. “What we don’t have is The Second Wind Fund.”
Until recently, Second Wind offered some funding to Boulder youth through Compass House, a nonprofit that closed its doors in January. Since then, there has been no Second Wind affiliate in Boulder.
Some funding is available through another nonprofit, Colie’s Closet, which sells gently used clothing to raise money both for depression and suicide awareness programs, including the HOPE Coalition, and to help fund treatment for individuals in need.
But without The Second Wind, there’s still a critical unmet need in Boulder County.
Valentine says the HOPE Coalition is exploring the possibility of becoming a Second Wind affiliate, but cautions nothing has been decided yet.
“It’s a program that other communities are taking full advantage of that we just aren’t,” Valentine says. “We’re in the process of looking to see if we can find a person who has the interest, the passion and the time to step forward and volunteer to start the program.”
As fate would have it, they’re getting a bit of unexpected help.
Adam Johnson, 25, graduated from the University of Michigan and moved to Boulder after having seen the town during a college trip. Currently enrolled in a course on creating community service projects through Landmark Education’s Self-Expression and Leadership Program, Johnson was searching for a cause to support and stumbled across the March 2008 report about depression and suicide in Colorado. He did a bit of additional research and discovered The Second Wind Fund. After speaking with Lamontagne, he decided to raise money to help bring the program back to Boulder.
“The goal is to restore that service to this community,” Johnson says.
The event, slated for Saturday, May 17, is titled “The Boulder Dance for Life,” and will be held at Café Babu, on the corner of University Avenue and Broadway. The event will feature a silent auction with a Nepalese buffet from 7 to 9 p.m. for $10 and then a night of music and dance from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. with DJ Bios a ic, DJ Bahiya and Serpent Moon Belly Dance, also $10. For those who truly love to dance, Buddha Bomb will keep the music going from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m., also for $10. The proceeds go to The Second Wind Fund for use specifically in Boulder.
Lamontagne, an environmental lawyer by training, would love to see Boulder County with its own full-blown Second Wind affiliate and hopes those with the skills and interest will step forward to make it happen.
“I definitely never thought I’d get into teen suicide prevention, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “Frankly, I feel blessed. It’s not everyone who stumbles into a situation where they feel their work will save young lives, but that’s what we’re able to do.”
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If you are in crisis:
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at
Call the National Hopeline Network at 1-800-SUICIDE
If Spanish-speaking, call the Kristin Brooks Hope Center Spanish suicide support line at 1-800-SUICIDA
Call the Comitis Center hotline at 303-343-9890; or
In an emergency, call 911.
For help in identifying at-risk youth and tips on how to respond,
go to www.TheSecondWindFund.org.
The Second Wind Fund: www.TheSecondWindFund.org or call 303-988-2645.
Boulder Dance for Life: www.BoulderDanceforLife.com.
Boulder Psychological Services: www.boulderpsychologicalservices.com or call 720-217-3270.
The HOPE Coalition: www.hopecoalition.org.
Colie’s Closet: www.coliescloset.org.
Mental Health Center of Boulder County: www.mhcbc.org, or call 303-443-8500. For 24-hour emergencies, call 447-1665.