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As Colorado Makes Headway On Suicide Awareness, More Data Could Help

Loren Kerns
Flickr - Creative Commons

Suicide was the number one injury-related cause of death in Colorado in 2013 according to state health officials. 

Gov. John Hickenlooper declared Sept. 7 through Sept. 14 suicide prevention week. It's one of the strategies Colorado legislators are using, but crafting a local suicide prevention campaign can be very difficult because of Colorado's closed records laws.

"So much of the work is about education and awareness, and that's hard to do when we don't have enough people sharing the information."

A flurry of suicide and mental health related initiatives have been introduced statewide in an effort to curb Colorado's high suicide rate. The state annually ranks within the top 10 nationwide.

During the 2014 legislative session a 26 member suicide prevention commission was created to "represent the public and private sectors that have experience with or have been affected by suicide and suicide prevention," according to the state's website.

Members have not yet been named, as the state is recruiting people for the commission and accepting applications through the end of August.

An initiative by the governor contains plans for an array of improvements to mental health services in the state, including real-time data transfers for mental health information during firearm background checks, streamlining bureaucratic processes for involuntary mental health holds and other enhancements to community-based mental health services.

Credit Weld County Department of Public Health

The state also implemented a crisis hotline that offers assistance and support on a wide range of mental health issues — from those feeling suicidal to those who are grieving or stressed.

But on a local level, focusing on people who are most at risk of suicide becomes difficult because officials simply don't know who they are, and some county officials would like to see changes in the law.

In Weld County, Health Department Director Dr. Mark Wallace only knows that men, between the ages 45 and 64 are statistically the most likely to commit suicide, a little over half the time using a firearm. Wallace said having ready access to the information on the death certificates that are housed just down the hall from his office could help.

Weld County reported 49 suicide deaths in 2013, marking a 10 year high.

"We would be able to be more responsive I think in understanding some of the issues around suicide if we were able to go in and take a look at those suicides and maybe contribute back some of that information," Wallace said.

If you haven't seen a death certificate, they contain a gold mine of information, from a research perspective. They have a person's ethnicity, their occupation, if the deceased had significant health conditions, like cancer or depression. But Colorado is a closed records state, meaning death certificates are confidential, even to public health officials like Wallace.

This becomes a big problem if part of your job is to create campaigns to try to decrease negative public health trends, like suicide rates. Those campaigns are usually based on analyzing data in order to figure out who is most at risk and trying to reach them.

Colorado created an office of suicide prevention more than a decade ago. Jarrod Hindman directs the office and will serve on the state suicide prevention commission.

"So much of the work is about education and awareness, and that's hard to do when we don't have enough people sharing the information," Hindman said.

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