Suicide in the mountains: Communities work to reduce the stigma
Editor’s note: This is the first part in a four-part series looking at suicide, drug and alcohol addiction and mental health resources in the mountains.
Molly Fiore thought she wanted to kill herself — she had the thought many times throughout 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.
One night at home in Vail about five years ago, she made the decision. She didn’t know how she would kill herself, 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. They felt hopeless.”
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 first-hand 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 per 100,000 in 2010 (the most recent year data was available), according to 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 where there’s basically one degree of separation, 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 before Muething knew it, they were hosting 360 people 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 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.
“We have to reduce the stigma,” she said. “In order to do that we have to talk about depression and suicide and mental health.”
HIGH SUICIDE RATES IN THE MOUNTAINS
Some mental health professionals and organizations talk about suicide as being a totally preventable cause of death, but there isn’t consensus within the mental health community on that point.
“We don’t think anything is 100 percent preventable,” said Chriss Flynn, spokeswoman for Mind Springs Health, which offers mental health services in many communities across the Western Slope. “We say treatment works.”
There are 17 community mental health centers in Colorado, 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” during the last three straight years, there doesn’t appear to be much movement in suicide statistics throughout the region.
The state categorizes 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, suggests much higher rates on the Western Slope.
“Aspen is three times the national suicide rate,” Flynn said, noting that in 2010 the Pitkin rate was 35 deaths per 100,000.
The problem with suicide data is that it’s not always accurate. If someone who lives in Denver drives to Vail to commit suicide, for example, then the state records the death as a Denver death, but Eagle County records it as a local suicide, said Jarrod Hindman, the manager of the state Office of Suicide Prevention. He added that most people typically commit suicide at home, so these discrepancies are less common.
But coroners can record a car accident or a drug overdose as an accidental death in the absence of suicide notes or other evidence, so discrepancies can also pop up there.
“In my eight years in this field, I’ve heard from probably 20 or more of the counties that all have the belief that their rate is the highest in the state,” he said. “Part of it is how you manipulate the data.”
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 and many are using their experiences to try to erase the stigma and, more importantly, prevent more suicides from occurring in their communities.
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 who she had grown up with in Eagle took his own life 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).”
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.
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