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Colorado's Western Slope Facing Higher Incidences Of Suicide

Joe Mahoney
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News
A Denver police officer and paramedic respond to the scene of where a man reportedly jumped from a parking garage in downtown Denver, Aug. 22, 2013 in an apparent suicide.

Colorado’s suicide rate consistently tops the national average. In 2011, the state had the ninth highest suicide rate in the nation, according to the latest available Centers for Disease Control data. And it’s going up.

The suicide rate in the state has jumped around 19 percent over the past decade, taking the lives of 1,004 Colorado residents in 2013, the state health department reports.

People who study the trends say the nature of suicide makes it hard to pin down a reason that Coloradans experience more than their fair share of this tragedy.

But some of the worst states in the country for suicide — which also include Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico — share common traits, notes Jarrod Hindman, who runs the state’s Office of Suicide Prevention. They’re places with large stretches of unpopulated land, where geography can isolate people from neighbors and social ties.

Colorado’s ethos of rugged individualism may also be partly to blame, said Hindman, for its insistence on “picking ourselves up by our boot straps” instead of asking for help.

“Those can be great social norms,” said Hindman, “but not if you have a brain disorder.”

Credit Ryan Conley / Rocky Mountain PBS
Rocky Mountain PBS

Dave Fishell, a 61-year-old resident of Grand Junction, calls himself lucky. He suffered his first major bout of depression 27 years ago, after losing his job as a features reporter at the Daily Sentinel. He was among those who sought out help when depression drove him to consider taking his own life.

In retrospect, he believes he had a genetic proclivity toward depression; his grandfather had been hospitalized. But it took a life crisis — in his case a job loss — to trigger its initial appearance. What followed was a yearlong spiral, he said, that affected almost every aspect of his life.

“When you’re at the very worst, when you’re really thinking suicidal thoughts,” said Fishell, “there’s no hope. It’s like being at the bottom of a deep well and you can barely see the top. It’s black, it’s dark, and you don’t think anybody’s going to reach you.”

Somebody did reach Fishell. His wife, a nurse, urged him to seek psychiatric help. Over the intervening three decades, Fishell has been hospitalized three times for depression, and regards himself as a success story in the way he has learned to manage the disease.

Colorado's new statewide mental health crisis hotline is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at 1-844-493-TALK [8255]. In case of a psychiatric emergency, call 911.

Fishell’s wife did something else that may have been crucial to his survival: She locked away his guns in a safe, and held onto the key.

Men are more likely than women to use more violent means like guns in suicide attempts — another important factor in their higher rates of completing suicide.

Fishell is now a board member at the Western Colorado Suicide Prevention Foundation, which has started a campaign to teach gun owners and their families to do what his wife did for him.

Mesa County and its Western Slope neighbors have been state standouts in recent years — in the worst way possible — for their high rates of suicide.

Greg Rajnowski is the health planner for the Mesa County Health Department, which has identified suicide as one of the most pressing public health issues in the region.

Rajnowski also notes that middle-aged men and older men aren’t the only ones at risk. Young and middle-aged women attempted suicide more frequently than their peers in recent years, according to hospitalization data.

“It creates a cost to the health care system that’s much more pronounced for females than males,” said Rajnowski, noting that suicide attempts place a high burden on emergency rooms and behavioral health care providers.

At the same time, a scarcity of psychiatric beds in western Colorado and around the state mean that those who are depressed and suicidal sometimes have to travel hundreds of miles for a bed, I-News has found.

Danny Sandoval directs diversity, student advocacy, and health programs at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. Sandoval, a Denver native who lost his uncle and a high school friend to suicide, now works with students to recognize the signs of depression and suicidal thinking.

Family members and friends can offer powerful support by raising the topic with people who seem to be suffering, rather than shying away from it.

“Suicide can be prevented,” said Sandoval.

I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS and works in collaboration with news media throughout Colorado.
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