Dangers of the mind
The high Rockies are a place of wonder, a land of myths and legends.
People from throughout the US dream of moving to places like Granby, Grand Lake and Winter Park. It truly is a privilege to spend your days in a place most people only visit on vacation, resort communities like those that fill Grand County.
But there is a darker side to the majesty of our purple mountains, a painful reality that most who live in the Rockies are aware of, even if they don’t necessarily like to talk about it: suicide. Saturday, Sept. 10, is World Suicide Prevention Day, an opportunity to reflect poignantly on the reality of suicide in the high country and to remind anyone suffering through depression that their experience is not a sign of weakness; and that speaking up and asking for help takes strength more than fear.
So far this year Grand County has had four residents commit suicide; four out of just over 14,000. Compare those figures to national rates of suicide, 12.93 per 100,000 and you begin to realize that Grand County has a suicide problem. But the issue is not relegated to Grand County alone. Statewide Colorado residents commit suicide at a rate well above the national average at 19.4 per 100,000. Similar trends emerge when looking at the other Rocky Mountain states.
A WESTERN EPIDEMIC?
Throughout the western high country, from Montana to New Mexico, suicide rates are significantly higher than the national average. Understanding why an individual person commits suicide can be extremely difficult to grasp even for those who have experienced some semblance of the depression and pain people go through before they take their own lives, but the question remains in a broad sense, why are suicide rates so high in the Rockies?
Many theories have been posited with researchers pointing fingers at a menagerie of possibilities from rural settings, to the prevalence of firearms, to troubled economic outlooks and more. But a single factor is beginning to emerge which many believe has a strong correlation to suicide rates: elevation.
Multiple research studies have delved into the topic including one published in 2011 in the medical journal, High Altitude Medicine & Biology by researchers working with the University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. Their findings indicate a, “strong positive correlation between altitude and suicide rate at the county level.” Their study results go on to state, “increasing altitude deciles were associated with significantly higher suicide rates.”
A study conducted by the University of Utah last year found hypobaric hypoxia, the term for reduced oxygen levels experienced at high altitudes, had a correlation to depression rates. An article printed on the University of Utah Health Care web site states, “The correlation between altitude and high rates of depression and suicide is strikingly obvious in the Intermountain West region.” The article goes on to state the high rates of suicide have earned the Rocky Mountain states a dubious title, “the suicide belt”.
GRAND COUNTY STATS
Suicide rates in Grand Count have been trending mostly upwards for the past 10-years. Over the last decade a total of 24 people have committed suicide in Grand County. Most of them, a total of 20, were men while three women and one transgender woman also committed suicide in Grand County since 2007, according to statistical data from the Grand County Coroner’s Office (GCCO). Most were county residents though a few, three, were not locals.
The worst year for suicides by far was 2011, which saw a total of six. The numbers dropped off drastically in 2012, with one suicide, but have continued to climb since with two suicides in 2013, three in 2014, four in 2015 and four so far this year with four more months left on the calendar. There were no suicides at all in Grand County in 2007 and 2009. The tragic loss of life was felt only once in 2008 and thrice in 2010.
Suicidal thoughts, as a mental condition, can be extremely difficult for mental health professionals to treat. “There are several different ways we address suicide prevention and awareness,” said Matthew Carlson, Program Coordinator for Mind Springs Health in Granby. “We look at suicide from a problem solving perspective. People generally don’t want to commit suicide but they feel trapped, that they have no other option. They feel the only option to escape whatever pain, suffering or grief they feel is by going into the unknown after life.”
Carlson said mental health professionals will typically look at three key factors when assessing patients regarding suicide: does the person have suicidal thoughts, does the person have a plan to commit suicide, and does the person have actual intent to commit suicide.
“I would say most people, at some point in time in their life, have suicidal thoughts,” Carlson said. “But they don’t necessarily mean to carry it out. Some people might have thoughts of suicide but don’t have intention.”
To reduce the immediate risk of suicide in those experiencing such thoughts Carlson said mental health providers typically review both risk and protective factors. Risk factors could include specific places or memories that trigger depression, basically anything that might push a person to go through with plans of suicide. Protective factors would be those elements in an individual’s life that would reduce their desire or willingness to kill themselves and include things like belief in god, close friendships or a desire to not hurt their children spouses by committing suicide.
“Clinically we are looking at that balance,” Carlson said. “How do we reduce risk and change factors. We don’t want them isolated but we don’t want them smothered.”
Other means of addressing suicidal thoughts include therapy sessions, support groups, medication and even things as simple as spending time with close friends or taking your dog for a walk. Carlson and others who work with people suffering from suicidal thoughts often develop safety plans for their patients that outline steps to be taken when depression and suicidal thoughts become prevalent.
There are multiple treatment avenues anyone suffering from suicidal thoughts can take. Mind Springs offers several free services including Mental Health First Aid Classes, a 24-hour crisis hotline, a 24-hour on call clinician, crisis intervention staff and a respite care facility in Frisco. They also have options for more severe cases. If you have questions about any of their programs please don’t hesitate to call them or any other mental health providers seeking help.
Not everyone who experiences suicidal thoughts is cognizant of what they are feeling. Depression has a surprising ability to fog the mind like a narcotic, making thoughts less clear and impulsive behavior a dangerous possibility. Feelings of hopelessness are among the most common descriptors used by people dealing with suicidal thoughts. It is also common for suicidal people to lose interest in their favorite activities and become self-isolating. Because depression can adversely affect our physical bodies as well feeling excessively and consistently tired can be a warning sign worth examining.
Carlson explained he and other mental health professionals work to break patients out of negative self-reinforcing thought cycles. “We speak about 300 to 1,000 words a minute to ourselves in our minds,” Carlson said. “When most of those are negative it becomes a negative self talk pattern. When negative self talk takes over, that is a warning sign.”
In 2014 alone 1,058 people committed suicide in Colorado while 41,149 individuals committed suicide nationwide in 2013, making it the 10 leading cause of death in the US that year. Rates have been trending up for nearly two decades now and we can expect similar numbers for this year.
Those numbers are significant and show how important it is to bring awareness to an issue with enough stigma many people resort to self-medication with drugs and alcohol rather than seeking treatment.
“Part of why we have suicide awareness day and month is for people to consider becoming more educated and take advantage of the free resources out there,” Carlson said. “There is a stigma around mental health but it is our responsibly as citizens to understand the basics.”
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