Attorney General Phil Weiser: Colorado Teens Deserve Our Best Teamwork on Mental Health
The Attorney General’s Office runs the Safe2Tell program, an anonymous tip line created in the wake of the Columbine tragedy. While initially conceived of as a way for students, teachers, and communities to anonymously report threats and to stop school violence, teen suicide has emerged as our number one tip in recent years.
Over the last two years, reflecting sustained efforts to raise awareness of this program, overall tips rose to more than 20,000 reports, ranging from threats of suicide to students bringing guns to school to the sale of drugs. Acting on these reports, Safe2Tell is working as a valuable violence prevention and intervention tool that is both protecting students and saving lives.
To see how Safe2Tell is working, let’s review how it works. Many Safe2Tell tips take the following form, which I will anonymize and generalize since all our tips are confidential. Let’s say that Clara, a student at a school in rural northeastern Colorado, calls Safe2Tell because she is gravely concerned about her friend, Fen. Fen has been posting messages and photos online that suggest she is depressed, and today, Fen posted to say that she doesn’t want to go on, that she is going to harm herself this weekend.
Let’s pause here to absorb the magnitude of the challenge we face as Coloradans and what we owe our state’s teens; Clara and Fen’s story is far from unique. As we struggle with this pandemic, it should come as no surprise that mental health challenges are on the rise. For many youth between the ages of 10-24, mental health is a defining challenge—suicide is the leading cause of death for people between in this age category.
So what happens to Clara’s tip about Fen? Our expert analysts will receive her tip, draw as much information out of the conversation as they can, and then pass all details to our two key partners in every community: Fen’s school and her town’s emergency communications center, which can deploy all appropriate first responders including paramedics, fire fighters, and/or law enforcement officers. We refer to these groups as multidisciplinary teams, which, in some cases, includes mental health and other early intervention partners. With the report in hand, the multidisciplinary team in Fen’s town responds to bring Fen the immediate help she needs, the support she needs at school, and to work together on a long-term plan.
One thing that many people ask is when and why communication centers may dispatch law enforcement in response to a Safe2Tell tip. To be clear, when possible, Safe2Tell recommends that the most appropriate professional responds, whether that is a school official, mental health worker, or other first responder, including law enforcement. And there are two main reasons it might be an officer—let’s again use Clara and Fen’s situation as an example.
The first would be if there is an imminent threat to Fen—for example, if Clara’s tip included a photo of Fen’s already having harmed herself or has given a clear indication of taking imminent action to take her life. The second main reason police may arrive is if there is no other appropriate responder in Clara and Fen’s town. To be clear, in our ideal world, there would be mental health resources and co-responder programs in place to send a mental health professional to intervene.
In practice, however, law enforcement is the only option in town—and they are trained to respond admirably when necessary. In Grand Junction, for example, the local police department received 5,000 mental health calls in 2019, with over 2,000 visits. In only three of those cases, the individual was judged to be a threat to others and needed to be taken into custody. The alternative to law enforcement responses in those cases is no one coming to intervene and the potential of a consequence that pains us greatly—finding another young person who took his or her life. Indeed, a painful occurrence for us is when law enforcement does show up in response to a threat and it is too late.
In many cases like Clara and Fen’s, these teams have intervened in the nick of time, saving a child’s life. We can’t tell the public about those because the law is crafted to protect confidentiality—and rightly so. We can’t talk about the many times parents have learned about their child’s mental health struggle thanks to a call from the school after a Safe2Tell tip. Or the times when schools have learned about a weapon at school through the program. Or the times schools have learned of bullying or drug use at school via Safe2Tell.
We are currently working with partners across Colorado to make sure that Safe2Tell callers know they have mental health resources waiting for them. It might be that Clara would like to talk to someone about her experience with Fen’s situation; we’re going to make sure she and every caller to Safe2Tell have the chance to be transferred directly to Colorado Crisis Services for mental health or substance use counseling services or other resources.
There is not a single solution to address the challenge of teen suicide, but any success is and will be built on teamwork. Together—during this moment of interlocking crises that our teens feel as acutely as anyone—we must rededicate our efforts, working together as schools, communities, health professionals, and law enforcement to save lives. In our Safe2Tell Annual Report, we share a picture of the tips we receive and how we are working to save lives. If you have feedback or suggestions on how we can do our work better, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.