Suicide in the mountains: Communities work to reduce the stigma
May 30, 2014
Molly Fiore thought she wanted to kill herself — she had the thought many times over the course of 20 years.
When she couldn't seem to make herself do it, she would sink even deeper into her depression.
"I would think, 'I'm a coward, I can't even kill myself,'" she said.
“We call it the bystander effect — so many people who know someone and think, ‘Surely someone’s helping them, so I don’t need to.’”
executive director, Aspen Hope Center
One night at home in Vail about five years ago, she made the decision. She didn't know how she would commit suicide, but she knew she was ready to go through with it.
"There was such a peace in that moment, that this pain is really about to be over," Fiore said. "In a weird way, I was in a bliss moment — just serene. But in that moment, in that peace, it created space for a new thought to come in. 'What if I really started living my life for myself?'"
She felt closer to suicide that night than ever before. Her husband at the time knew it, and so did a close friend. Fiore now recalls watching their panic at 2 a.m. because they didn't know how to help.
"They were up all night trying to figure out what to do," she said. "I could see how terrifying that was for them."
Fiore volunteers for Speak Up Reach Out, the suicide prevention coalition in Eagle County, of which she was formerly the executive director. She uses her firsthand knowledge of depression and suicidal thoughts to educate the community and, hopefully, save lives.
Local law enforcement, mental health professionals and suicide coalitions report anecdotally that suicide rates in the mountains are higher per capita than the state average. And Colorado as a state has a higher average suicide rate — 19.7 suicides per 100,000 people in 2012 — than the national average, which was 12.4 in 2010, the most recent year for which data was available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mental health professionals have varying theories as to why mountain towns struggle with suicide, but they all agree on one important point: the stigma surrounding it silences those in danger from seeking help. It also silences those who are worried about their loved ones.
A conversation focused on erasing that stigma began in Aspen earlier this year when the community learned of four suicides in a two-week period, said Michelle Muething, executive director of the Aspen Hope Center. In a small community, Muething said word of the deaths spread fast.
"Our phone rang off the hook with people calling and asking for trainings," she said. "It started a huge buzz of conversation that just said, 'You guys are the agency in town that talks about (suicide and mental health) more than anybody. We want you to do something — how can we help you?'"
Gram Slaton at the Wheeler Opera House offered the facility for a community discussion, and 360 people showed up for an event in March that focused a lot on a stigma in need of a serious overhaul.
"People don't want to rock the boat, or they don't want to offend somebody," Muething said. "That's hard when you know someone who needs help. We call it the bystander effect — so many people who know someone and think, 'Surely someone's helping them, so I don't need to.'"
The Aspen Hope Center offers mental health crisis intervention and prevention services for the Roaring Fork Valley. It hosted another community forum on mental health Wednesday in Carbondale in an effort to keep the conversation going.
high suicide rates in the mountains
Some mental health professionals and organizations talk about suicide as being an entirely preventable cause of death, but experts lack consensus on that point.
"We don't think anything is 100 percent preventable," said Chriss Flynn, spokesperson for Mind Springs Health, which offers mental health services in many communities across the Western Slope. "We say treatment works."
Colorado has 17 community mental health centers, of which Mind Springs is considered one, but it operates locations in 13 communities throughout the Western Slope in Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Mesa, Moffat, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt and Summit counties.
While Flynn said Mind Springs data shows it has "reduced patient symptoms and severity" over the last three straight years, suicide statistics throughout the region don't appear to be falling.
The state groups Garfield, Pitkin, Eagle, Summit and Grand counties into one health statistics region. The region as a whole falls into the lowest quarter for suicide rates in the state, at 13.7 to 15.6 per 100,000 people, according to the state Office of Suicide Prevention's report on Suicide in Colorado from 2008-2012. The state average in that time frame was 17.4 per 100,000. Local data, however, suggest much higher rates.
"Aspen is three times the national suicide rate," Flynn said, noting that in 2010 the Pitkin rate was 35 deaths per 100,000.
As of 2010, the national suicide rate was 12.4 deaths per 100,000, according to the CDC. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that the rate is highest in the West, at 13.6 per 100,000, ranging in 2010 from 10.5 per 100,000 in California to 23.2 in Wyoming.
Suicide data is not always accurate. Coroners might record a car accident or a drug overdose as an accidental death in the absence of suicide notes or other evidence, though some such deaths are likely intentional.
In tight-knit communities throughout the region, people don't need statistics to tell them that suicide is a serious concern. Those left behind are suffering.
It's why Erin Cochrane-Ivie, the new executive director at Eagle County's suicide prevention coalition Speak Up Reach Out, got involved with the nonprofit. In 2007, a close friend with whom she grew up in Eagle killed himself days before his 22nd birthday. In the years after his death, she can think of seven other suicides in Eagle County in the 13-30 age range.
"That's when I was like, 'OK, there's something wrong here,' and I decided to get involved," Cochrane-Ivie said. "The majority of people, even once they've decided they want to die, will (accept help)."
Part two in this series will focus on mental health struggles and where to find help 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.