This is the third story in a four-part series looking at suicide, drug and alcohol addiction, and mental health resources in the mountains. The first installment appeared Friday and the second part on Monday; the series will conclude Thursday.
Licensed clinical psychologist Jill Squyres moved to Eagle from Texas two years ago. She thought suicide rates and depression would be low in the beautiful mountains of western Colorado, but she has quickly learned differently.
“It’s very much a party culture,” Squyres said. “A lot of people here live like they’re in their 20s. Not like there’s anything wrong with that, except drugs and alcohol tend to be a part of that.”
Kim Baillargeon of Aspen lost her 23-year-old son Raymond Vieira to suicide Feb. 26. She read her son’s death certificate to the 360 people at the Aspen Hope Center’s community forum at the Wheeler Opera House in March. Her voice cracked as she read details about the “decedent” — details about how he killed himself in Snowmass Village that evening and how alcohol intoxication contributed to his death.
It was his “last official document,” she said.
“Raymond’s death by suicide has crushed me,” she said. “To realize my child was struggling with alcoholism was devastating. It happened so quickly, and he tried to beat it.”
Alcohol and other drugs contribute to as many as 25 percent of suicides in the United States, according to the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention’s Mantherapy.org. Vieira’s blood alcohol level was more than .22 when he died, Baillargeon told the audience, adding that she has heard of as many as 20 Aspen High School alumni having either committed suicide or dying from drug overdoses in the last year and a half.
“Substance abuse issues among our young adults continue to escalate, and suicides are becoming epidemic,” she said. “The beauty of the mountains, five-star hotels and special events pale compared to the dark cloud that hangs over us.”
Mental illness and addiction
The lifestyle in mountain resort communities often centers on the party. Many move here for that lifestyle with dreams of being a ski bum and living life as if it’s a permanent vacation. Some hope to escape problems they faced elsewhere.
The hospitality industry in which so many people work promotes that lifestyle, said Tim Harrington, founder of Sustainable Recovery, a recovery program based in Carbondale.
Harrington owned a restaurant in Aspen more than a decade ago, and the lifestyle helped him reach his bottom, he said.
“That industry is close-knit — very supportive around your usage,” he said.
Harrington left Aspen and moved back to California. At one point he lived out of his car, sobering up 13 years ago.
While Mind Springs Health, the region’s primary mental health provider, promotes treatment as the best option, in Harrington’s line of work it’s just the tip of the iceberg, he said.
“Treatment is an introduction into recovery; it’s getting somebody stabilized. A little bit of education and then you’re done, you can’t stay forever,” he said. “The very crucial work is yet to be done, which takes place in the community. The challenge is how do you sustain recovery once you’ve left treatment.”
Harrington bases his programs on research that shows the best chance for recovering is a full year of therapy, including medication management, participation in mutual aid groups like Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, and ongoing psychotherapy.
Harrington has felt suicidal himself, and said he has lost several friends to suicide in the Roaring Fork Valley over the years. If the conversation doesn’t continue, he believes the suicides and addiction problems won’t ease up.
“What we’re discovering more and more is that there is definitely a relationship between the mental illness piece and the addiction piece,” Harrington said. “As high as 60 to 70 percent have both [addiction and mental illness].”
More research, more discussion
Of the eight Summit County suicides in 2013, three were alcohol-related. Of the 11 Garfield County suicides in 2013, nine involved alcohol or other drugs.
A U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration white paper, “Substance Abuse and Suicide Prevention: Evidence and Implications,” notes that “alcohol and drug abuse are second only to depression and other mood disorders as the most frequent risk factors for suicide.”
It added, “Depression may be associated with increased substance use, and chronic substance abuse may be a factor in the development of depression or other mood disorders.”
The relationship between the two and what health care providers, both physical and mental, can do about it has become a subject of even more research. The National Institutes of Health is examining how to develop evidence-based standards to identifying suicidal patients in emergency rooms. Currently, there are none.
Identifying addiction and suicide ideation isn’t the sole responsibility of emergency room doctors and nurses, though. Suicide prevention coalitions throughout the region are trying to educate everyone about personal responsibilities in lessening the problem.
The Eagle County suicide prevention coalition Speak Up Reach Out is trying to address it through schools and local businesses, and like the Aspen Hope Center has done in the Roaring Fork Valley, through public discussion.
“The physical signs we tell people are changes in eating habits, if somebody seems sad all the time,” said Speak Up Reach Out Executive Director Erin Cochrane-Ivie. “If people all of a sudden are getting their affairs in order, finishing all their projects at work, or giving away any of their possessions. Abuse of alcohol and drugs is another one. The person who is sober might not make that decision, but once you add that extra layer, it makes it really easy [to make a bad decision].”
Casey Wolfington, a clinical psychologist with practices in Summit and Eagle counties, said drug and alcohol use is a common coping skill for teenagers. She tries to encourage her patients to find coping skills available in the mountains, such as outdoor activities.
“New coping skills and strategies can include group activities, exercise, athletic programs, having a mentor, or something as simple as going for a walk and listening to music,” she said. “A journal is good for kids who like talking to their parents.”
Sustaining recovery is challenging in a resort environment. The lifestyle is one of the factors that so many regional mental health experts blame for the relatively high suicide rates in mountain resort communities — addiction creates short highs often followed by extended lows.
“If you’re someone who falls into things quickly, you need to know that and find ways to provide an external strategy,” said Squyres, the psychologist who relocated from Texas. “If one drink clouds judgment and you can’t stop — if you’re that kind of person — then you shouldn’t drink.”
But because making these decisions alone is often impossible for people who suffer from these kinds of problems, finding help becomes critical.
Harrington believes more people will seek the help they need if the community never lets the public discussion fade away. The discussion, he said, must keep both substance abuse and suicide prevention at the forefront. But rather than react, the community must get in front of the problem.
“There are so many common themes with a personal recovery and personal transformation,” he said. “If we do decide to talk about this regularly, it has to be about hopefulness, empowerment and forgiveness, and it has to be blame- and shame-free.”
The final installment in this series focuses on resources for mental health and addiction in the mountains.
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at email@example.com or 970-777-3125.