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Despite Widespread Mental Health Struggles, Colorado's Suicide Rate Has Remained Steady During The Pandemic

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During the pandemic, a majority ofColoradans reported elevated rates of stress, anxiety and loneliness. Some Northern Colorado hospitals have treated many kids for mental health issues, reporting these types of visits have made up a greater percentage of overall visits than in the past. Preliminary state data indicates that just over 1,200 Coloradans died by suicide in 2020.

But although Colorado generally has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, preliminary state data indicates that the state’s rate in 2020 remained relatively unchanged compared to 2019.

“So I think oftentimes people try to simplify it and be like, ‘Oh, there's this horrible economic and COVID pandemic. And so there must be a rise in suicide rates,’’ explained Scott Smith, executive director for Alliance for Suicide Prevention of Larimer County. “But there's also a lot of things that might have prevented suicide during that time.”

Economic stress and job loss can be risk factors for suicide. Although Coloradans experienced significant job loss during the pandemic, Smith points to both the increase in unemployment benefits and other assistance, through the CARES Act, as a “safety net” that prevented some despair.

“I think another important factor, too, is we saw a huge increase in people accessing crisis services, which some people might think, ‘Oh, that's a sign that mental health is really poor and that's not good,’” Smith said. “I kind of like to flip it. I think it's actually a good sign that so many people are getting the life saving care that they need.”

Colorado Crisis Services, the state’s 24-hour support line, received record call volumes during the pandemic. In January, the number of calls surpassed 23,500 — nearly double what it was two years prior.

But access to care for Coloradans has been uneven throughout the pandemic. Last spring, though many behavioral health providers closed down in-person services, many quickly brought those services online, leading to a surge in telemedicine.

With in-person school closed for many months, that reliable pathway to care for students was partially cut off. Colorado’s Safe2Tell anonymous reporting system has seen a 56% decrease in tips so far this year compared to the previous school year, a dip which the Attorney General’s office attributes to “delayed school openings and distance learning practices.” Many school districts have brought counseling services online.

“Let's be optimistic and say that maybe we're coming out of the COVID pandemic a little bit, assuming that vaccine rollout still goes out relatively smoothly. I think there's going to be some repercussions from this for years and years,” Smith said. “So I think there's going to be a pretty big fallout as far as folks needing more therapeutic services, needing some more economic assistance.”

As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.
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