Taking on the challenge

By Terri Lynn Oldham House

Pagosa Springs Elementary School Principal Justin Cowan seems to be on a mission. 

He started a 22-day push-up challenge to raise awareness for “Veteran suicide prevention and mental health support.”

Cowan posted on his Facebook page: “On average 22 Veterans a day commit suicide, and this challenge is a small way to raise awareness for this issue. 22 push-ups for 22 days to raise awareness for veterans suicide prevention and mental health resources.

“MILITARY AND VETERANS CRISIS HOTLINE. 1-800-273-8255. Press 1. TEXT 838255 24/7.”

Each time he posts about it on Facebook, he posts a video of him doing his 22 push-ups. Sometimes you can hear the theme song to “The Andy Griffith Show” playing in the background. That happens to be one of his favorite television shows.

Cowan is a lot like the Energizer Bunny, when he hit day 22 of his push-up challenge, he just kept on going. On Tuesday of this week, he was on day 40 of creating awareness and working toward saving the lives of veterans.

Cowan isn’t just a school principal. Last month, he was promoted to the rank of major in the Colorado Army National Guard. That is where he serves as chaplain, helping to lift up others and sometimes he even finds himself doing interventions pertaining to suicide.

Some of his videos come with a message. One of them was about taking life one step at a time and taking things that overwhelm you one step at a time. He reminds us that there is help out there as he brings awareness to his important goal of suicide prevention in veterans.

In Cowan’s first video back in May, he encouraged reaching out for help and shared some of his own challenges and frustrations that he was dealing with at the time.

We commend Cowan for putting the importance of preventing suicide at the forefront in his daily life. 

September is National Suicide Prevention month, and the “Let’s Talk Colorado” campaign encourages talking about mental illness. 

In 2009, 13 confirmed suicides in Archuleta County placed the county high above state and national averages. 

From 2004 to 2015, there were a reported 34 suicides in Archuleta County, with La Plata County reporting 98 deaths by suicide. 

In 2015, suicide was the fourth leading cause of death in Archuleta County.

That same year, Colorado’s suicide rate was 19.4 per 100,000 residents, making it the seventh highest in the country. For the southwest Colorado region, the rate is higher than the state’s average.

According to Archuleta County Coroner Brandon Bishop, there were nine suicides in Archuleta County from 2016 until this same time last year. 

Unfortunately, Bishop reports those numbers increasing to four suicides from January to date for 2020.

SUN reporter Randi Pierce’s 2009 article on Archuleta County’s suicide crisis received statewide recognition for Public Service from the Colorado Press Association in 2010. That article included the following warning signs to watch for: 

• A significant change in eating habits — either decreased or increased appetite.

• Significant weight gain or loss.

• Withdrawing from family and friends.

• Increased substance abuse, including drugs and alcohol.

• Statements about hurting themselves or committing suicide.

• A sense of hopelessness or that what one is doing is not enough.

• Sleeplessness.

• In men especially, an increase in irritability, anger, frustration.

• Behavior that deviates from the norm.

• Loss of future orientation.

• An element of loss.

• The loss of a typical daily routine, which can follow events like retirement.

• Increased anxiety or stress.

Statistics show that at least 90 percent of all people who died by suicide were suffering from a mental illness at the time, most often depression.

The Let’s Talk Colorado website states that “COVID-19 is affecting all of us, causing uncertainty, fear and changes to our lives we never imagined. Now more than ever we need to take care of ourselves and look out for each other.”

You can find helpful information, tips and resources to stay healthy and support friends, neighbors, loved ones, our community and even ourselves at www.letstalkco.org.

A few of those tips include:

• “Stop the silence. If someone discloses that they have a mental illness, they are opening up to you in a big way. Ask questions, show concern, but keep the awkward silence at bay.

• “Be nice. It sounds simple enough, but try to say the right things with openness, warmth, caring and sincerity.

• “Listen. The fact that you are there can make a world of difference, so in your conversation, try to err more on the side of listening.

• “Keep in contact. Offer availability by phone, text, email, or a time to meet up. Just be there.

• “Don’t ignore it. Don’t be afraid to ask about the well-being of another if you think they might be hurting. Trust your senses.

• “Offer help. Everyone is different. They may want very specific help or no help at all. Either way, you can always ask and be open to the answer.

• “Keep the conversation moving. It’s OK to talk about other things to keep silent lulls out of conversation; as long as they know you’re completely open to revisiting the topic later.”

If warning signs are present, individuals are encouraged to reach out to family, friends and professionals. Loved ones are encouraged to ask the hard questions — asking if the person is thinking of hurting themselves or committing suicide.

Locally, Axis Health System offers a 24-hour crisis support line. If you are experiencing a mental health emergency, call 247-5245.

Western Colorado Crisis Services are also available 24/7 at (844) 493-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255.

If we all took on the challenge of preventing suicide like Cowan has done by reaching out and talking about mental health and how to deal with our problems, we might just save someone’s life.

You don’t have to be adept at push-ups to make a difference. 

This story was posted on September 17, 2020.