This is the second part in a four-part series looking at suicide, drug and alcohol addiction and mental health resources in the mountains. The first story appeared Friday; subsequent installments will run this week.
All seven of Eagle County’s 2013 suicides were white working males between the ages of 25-54, the No. 1 demographic in the state at risk for suicide.
Seven is the number the county’s suicide prevention coalition Speak Up Reach Out has on file, but anecdotal accounts point toward more than that. At the peak of the recession, Eagle County law enforcement and counselors at the Samaritan Center reported as many as one suicide per week.
Garfield County reported 11 suicides in 2013, all male. Summit County Coroner Tim Keeling reported eight suicides there in 2013, seven of which were self-inflicted gunshots. Six of those seven suicides were men.
The epidemic of working-age men killing themselves has garnered the attention of the state Office of Suicide Prevention, which launched its Man Therapy campaign in July 2012. The website, www.mantherapy.org, is designed to reach working age men through humor. The site tries “to change the way men think and talk about suicide and mental health,” and it provides men and their loved ones “tools to empower them to take control of their overall wellness.”
“Men are the mostly likely not to seek help — there’s a pride factor,” said Erin Cochrane-Ivie, the executive director at Speak Up Reach Out.
A Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention report shows that male suicides in Colorado outnumbered female suicides 3 to 1 from 2008-2012, accounting for 810 of the 1,053 suicides in 2012 alone.
The success of the Man Therapy website is greater than Jarrod Hindman, manager of the Office of Suicide Prevention, ever expected. In the first year, the website recorded 44,873 visits from Colorado and 322,842 total visits. More than 54,000 visitors completed the emotional health self-assessment, 79 percent of whom said they would use the techniques recommended on the website to improve their mental wellness.
The site recommends “manly tips” to work through depression. And even the self-assessment questions are funny. The first one reads, “Did you know koalas sleep over 18 hours a day? Lazy little bastards. Tell me about your sleep habits.”
Hindman said men actually have lower depression rates than women, but because they access mental health care less often, they carry a larger burden. Hindman calls it “rugged individualism,” something that is prevalent in mountains.
“Rural mountain communities often attract people who want to be isolated,” he said. “They think, ‘it’s your job to fix those things on your own and not seek help.’ But you can’t fix a brain disorder on your own.”
No shame in seeking help
The conversation about how to get working-age men the help they need began in 2007, but Hindman said they didn’t have money to do anything. Advocates knew they had to do something outside the box.
“So we created a website with tools where men can assess where they’re at with their mental health beyond going and sitting on a psychologist’s couch, because we know men don’t want to do that,” he said.
Lawrence Altman of Aspen told the 360 people who showed up for a mental health forum at the Wheeler Opera House in March that doing just that — getting professional help — helped him get through depression when he moved to Aspen from New York after 9/11. He used to believe he had to “man up and get better,” but talking to a professional on a regular basis has helped him become and better husband and father, he said.
“The idea that we can’t get help for mental or psychiatric issues but we can for physical issues is ridiculous, and it has to change,” he said. “I think it will help the problem we have in this valley a little bit if people get over this stigma.”
He created the Aspen Mental Health fund through the Aspen Community Foundation for those who need mental health care but can’t afford it. He said he’s committed to getting the community the help it needs.
“There’s no reason we live in the most beautiful place on Earth and we suffer from all these terrible suicides and a lack of understand why any of this is happening in such a small valley like this,” he said. “So I thought if one person heard me say this in front of a bigger crowd than I ever imagined, that maybe they’ll get some psychiatric help if they need it, ‘cause there’s no shame in it at all.”
Finding the right mental health resources
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that more Americans now die from suicide each year than motor vehicle accidents. And the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that at least 90 percent of people who die by suicide were suffering from mental illness — typically depression.
In small mountain communities where everybody seems to know everybody, children and parents are reluctant to admit they need mental health services, said licensed clinical psychologist Casey Wolfington, who practices in Frisco and Eagle-Vail, and serves as the clinical director for the Bright Future Foundation in Eagle County.
Living in a resort community inundated with happy tourists throughout the year also creates an idea that we should all be happy and feel lucky to live here, she said.
Another theory on why depression and suicide rates are so high in the mountains is that people have moved here from elsewhere, often from out-of-state, and have left their support systems of close family and friends behind. They have fewer people to turn to in times of crisis. The tourism industry also promotes partying, which can be synonymous with alcohol and other drugs.
Living in valleys with distinct season changes greatly affect moods, too. Aspen Hope Center Executive Director Michelle Muething said the high rate of sports and recreation-related injuries in the Roaring Fork Valley brings people down because suddenly they can’t get outside and do what they love.
“Everyone has a different set of coping skills, support systems and backgrounds,” she said. “I do think we will fight stigma for at least another generation. … The biggest thing that faces a lot of people is this high-tech, quick-moving society. You can go to the dermatologist and bam! your wrinkles are gone. When people are depressed, they want to feel better instantaneously. But it’s a process, it takes time.”
Suicide prevention efforts at the state and local level are focusing on training and education. The effort is gaining traction in Summit County, where there isn’t a formalized suicide prevention group, but Healthy Futures Initiative coordinator Jordan Schultz said educational programs are planned to start this fall.
In the Roaring Fork Valley, the Aspen Hope Center has been hosting a slew of suicide prevention classes this year, as well as public forums about mental health.
Speak Up Reach Out, in Eagle County, does a one-hour program in Eagle County schools called Signs of Suicide. It shows children and teenagers different scenarios of depression and also addresses the difference between depression and suicide, said Speak Up director Cochrane-Ivie.
Talking to kids in schools about suicide prevention is especially important when looking at data from the most recent Colorado Youth Risk Behavior Survey results from 2011. The survey reports that 14.8 percent of high school students “seriously considered attempting suicide during the past 12 months,” and nearly 22 percent of high school students “felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities during the past 12 months.”
Licensed clinical psychologist Jill Squyres moved to Eagle from Texas two years ago. She thought that suicide rates and depression would be low in the beautiful mountains of western Colorado, but quickly learned differently.
She was also surprised to learn that mental health resources in the mountains are limited, to say the least.
“There’s no formal system to get treatment,” said Squyres, who is also a board member for the county’s suicide prevention coalition Speak Up Reach Out. “I’m one of five part-time clinical psychologists in a county with 50,000 people. This is a big county to have such limited mental health resources.”
Part three in this series focuses on abuse of alcohol and other drugs in the mountains.
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-777-3125.