Teen’s suicide leads to anti-bullying program for Steamboat 8th graders

Heather Savalox, the creator of anti-bullying suicide prevention program “It Takes Courage,” speaks with students in Tracy Bye’s eighth grade class in November 2017. Savalox’s niece Kristina died by suicide after being bullied by classmates. (File photo)

Kristina Arielle Calco was 15 when she went into her family’s basement and took her life.

Her aunt, Steamboat Springs resident Heather Savalox, described Kristina as “beautiful, smart, kind and incredibly talented.”

The bullying began in the seventh grade, and even as Kristina was growing into an attractive young women who was an athlete, an artist and a straight-A student, she never got over being called fat and ugly in middle school.

Kristina Arielle Calco

“I knew I was always the ugly one,” Kristina wrote in her suicide note. “Don’t say that’s a lie, because you don’t know what some kids have said and done. It hurts to think about how mean some people could be. Even when I started to look a little better, they still couldn’t see.”

In 2019, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among children and adolescents age 13 to 19 and the leading cause of death among 13-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About five years after Kristina’s death, Savalox began telling her niece’s story to eighth graders at Steamboat Springs Middle School.

On the night Kristina died, she went to her winter formal. At the dance, Kristina kept talking to her friends about “a really great thing” that was going to happen that night, Savalox said.

Kristina came home from the dance, changed into her pajamas and spent a couple of hours on social media. Online, her friends asked if the really great thing had happened. Kristina responded when it happened, they would know.

Then Kristina killed herself.

Her younger sister discovered Kristina’s body in the morning when she went into the basement for laundry.

“Nobody knew there was anything wrong with her,” Savalox said.

But as Kristina’s mother began looking through her daughter’s journals, she discovered how deeply hurt Kristina had been by the bullying, and she discovered a depression that had been going on for years.

Today, with every eighth grade class, Savalox talks to the teens about recognizing signs of depression in their friends and how to be proactive in getting help.

They talk about resilience and self-esteem. They talk about warning signs and what Kristina’s friends might have been able to see, and do, to prevent her death.

Savalox talks about the power of words and the power of relationships.

“Teens have a very different perspective on life, with no frame of reference that things can and will get better,” said Gina Toothaker, the Steamboat Springs and Walden outpatient program director for Mind Springs Health.

Toothaker accompanies Savalox to the middle school, providing the mental health professional’s perspective.

They don’t lecture. They ask a lot of questions. They make sure everyone knows what suicide means, and they encourage the kids to use the word suicide in an effort to take away some of its power and stigma. And they talk about bullying.

Savalox created an intimate and powerful video about Kristina’s story called “Bullied to Death,” which has more than two million views on YouTube.

“Teens don’t have enough life experience, coping skills or brain maturity to be able to reason beyond what is happening right now, and they may believe suicide is the only way out of their pain,” Toothaker said. “That’s what makes bullying such a dangerous trigger. Kids feel like the bullying is never going to end, and it can infiltrate every part of their life.”

Savalox and Toothaker talk about when to reach out to an adult and how that might make their friends mad.

“A mad friend is better than a dead friend,” they said.

In her video, Savalox shows how Kristina was the beautiful girl — inside and out — that she so desperately wanted to be. She just couldn’t see it in herself.

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