Suicide in our community: A dark, open secret
A woman tells a friend she’s thinking about driving off Colorado National Monument. A sibling is concerned his brother has been talking about death and he’s got a gun. A child is worried about a parent who may have taken too many pills.
Two Thursdays ago, Fruita police officers calmed down a suicidal man armed with a loaded shotgun. Two weekends ago, a woman jumped off Cold Shivers Point on the monument. Less than two weeks ago, a well-known local businessman shot himself at his home.
The calls come into emergency dispatchers most every day. Sometimes help arrives in time. Sometimes a search for the troubled person ensues. Sometimes they are found too late.
It’s no secret Mesa County has an alarming suicide rate. But the sobering fact is that the number of people taking their own lives here inches higher every year.
Last year here, an average of one person died by suicide each week. If national statistics ring true that 25 people attempt suicide for each person who dies by suicide, 1,275 people a year in Mesa County attempted to take their lives last year. That’s equivalent to roughly half the population of Palisade.
Experts don’t know why the suicide rate spikes here, but they point to several factors.
Colorado is a western state, which historically has higher suicide rates than the rest of the nation. We’re more likely to have guns. We pride ourselves on being independent. Access to mental health care across the Western Slope is thinner in rural areas than in urban centers.
“There is no one answer,” said Sarah Robinson, integrated care director of Marillac Clinic.
Maybe it’s in part because Mesa County is one of the most populous counties on Colorado’s Western Slope.
“If you live anywhere on the Western Slope and have any kind of persistent mental health issues, you’re going to end up in Grand Junction eventually,” Robinson said.
A LOCAL AND STATEWIDE PROBLEM
The staggering rate of suicide isn’t unique to Mesa County. Citizens all across Colorado are more inclined to kill themselves than residents in other states.
In 2010, Colorado had the eighth-highest suicide rate, according to the American Association of Suicidology. The state conversely ranked low in spending on mental health, a factor often linked to suicide. Colorado spent less than $87 per Coloradan on mental health agency services in 2009, the most recent year data was available, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, putting it behind 29 other states in per capita mental health spending.
With 51 suicide deaths completed by Mesa County residents (47 of those inside the county), Mesa County had Colorado’s fifth-highest per-capita suicide rate in 2012, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and U.S. Census data.
Suicide killed more people in Mesa County last year than diabetes, breast cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatic cancer, homicides, car crashes or accidental falls. As many Mesa County residents died by suicide in 2012 as died due to colon cancer, prostate cancer, leukemia and melanoma combined.
Mesa County’s suicide rate is higher than both surrounding Western Slope counties and similarly sized counties in the state.
One in 2,899 residents completed suicide last year in Mesa County. Counties with similar population sizes and unemployment rates such as Weld and Pueblo counties had suicide rates last year of 1 in 6,432 residents and 1 in 5,547, respectively. Border counties Montrose, Garfield and Delta had suicides rates in 2012 of 1 in 4,073, 5,695 and 7,608 residents, respectively.
The four counties with higher rates than Mesa County — Sedgwick, Huerfano, Alamosa and Montezuma — are spread across the state and are five to 62 times smaller in population than Mesa County, making it easier for small numbers there to create a higher rate.
The number of Mesa County residents who completed suicide here has dropped from 29 during the first eight months of 2012 but remains high at 21 in the first eight months of 2013, according to the Mesa County Coroner’s Office.
The issue is clear. Finding out what’s causing it — or could stem it — remains a challenge.
RELATIONSHIP TROUBLES A PRIMARY FACTOR
According to the Mesa County coroner’s 2012 suicide report, 30 percent of people who completed suicide in Mesa County last year listed relationship issues as the decedent’s primary stressor, according to their families. Health, financial and legal issues were the top stressor in 21 percent, 11 percent and 6 percent of local suicides in 2012, according to the report. Depression was the primary stressor in 9 percent of suicides in the county last year.
Coroner Dean Havlik interviews friends and family members and tries to obtain medical records if a person who completed suicide saw local medical providers. He said it has been hard to find trends that link all suicides during the six years he has compiled suicide reports for the county because “every situation is different.” But there are some commonalities.
Havlik said elderly people tend to complete suicide because of medical or financial issues, while younger people are more likely to struggle with relationship trouble or drug or alcohol addiction. However, nearly half of people who completed suicide last year in Mesa County were middle-aged, between the ages of 30 and 49.
RECESSION PLAYS A ROLE
Karen Levad, executive director of the Western Colorado Suicide Prevention Foundation, said she’s not sure why Mesa County’s suicide rate is so high. If she had to guess, she would say 30- to 60-year-old men in this county may be struggling with an economy that hasn’t fully recovered from the recession. Mesa County’s unemployment rate, at 3.7 percent five years ago, hasn’t dropped below 7.9 percent since February 2009, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
Nine times more Mesa County homes completed foreclosure in the second quarter of 2013 compared to the second quarter of 2008, according to the Colorado Division of Housing and the Mesa County public trustee. Meanwhile, per-capita personal income in the county remained stagnant and in the bottom 40th percentile among U.S. metropolitan areas, going from $33,905 in 2009 to $35,169 in 2011, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Although most people who completed suicide in Mesa County in 2011 were employed, Levad said some may have struggled to find purpose in their work.
“There seems to be a displacement of men in that (30 to 60) group that have trouble finding meaningful employment,” Levad said.
Other contributing factors to Mesa County’s suicide rate, Levad said, may be the availability of guns in western Colorado, less access to mental health care options than people who live in urban areas and the stigma among hearty Westerners toward acknowledging suicidal thoughts and mental illness. Although depression may not have been the primary stressor in most Mesa County suicides last year, it is a factor in about two-thirds of suicide deaths nationwide, according to the American Association of Suicidology. The association also reports a person with major depression has a 20-times higher risk of suicide than a person not depressed. Levad said many people fear and do not understand mental illness due to a lack of education about what mental illness means.
“We don’t want to believe someone we love could be in that much pain, so we tend to pull away and discount what we’re seeing at some level,” Levad said.
LIMITED BEDS, LESS FUNDING
The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates 60 million Americans experience a mental illness in any given year.
Leslie Kent, president of the Western Slope chapter of NAMI, said mental illness is not something anyone wants to talk about, but it is something people need to talk about.
“As people begin to talk, it will de-stigmatize mental illness,” she said.
Kent said too many people erroneously believe mental illness, including depression, is something people can get over on their own if they just “buck up.”
Michelle Hoy, regional director of Mind Springs Health and West Springs Hospital, until recently known as Colorado West Regional Mental Health, said it’s just not that simple.
West Springs has a 24-hour crisis line and allows people to come in for an evaluation to see if they are an immediate danger to themselves or others. Hoy said people who are suicidal are admitted to West Springs if they are in danger of attempting suicide. If the facility is full, the hospital’s crisis team tries to find another place for that person to get help, either by referring them to a Front Range hospital or checking them in as soon as another patient is checked out.
“There are few psychiatric hospital beds in Colorado compared to most states. It’s hard to serve everyone in a crisis,” Hoy said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services designated Mesa County a Health Provider Shortage Area for Mental Health in December 2010. The designation means an area has too few mental health care providers and a high need for mental health services. The designation is expected to be renewed this December, according to the report “Healthy Mesa County: 2012-2017.”
West Springs serves 10 Western Slope counties and sometimes patients from outside the area. It’s the only psychiatric hospital between Denver and Salt Lake City, according to Hoy, and has just 32 beds. The facility also offers outpatient care Monday through Friday, individual and group therapy and medication assistance.
Just getting involved in each other’s lives and having meaningful conversations can go a long way toward letting people know they matter, Robinson said.
In general, people feel less connected to each other, she said. Technology has made plenty of advancements, allowing people to communicate via texts and online chats, but those conversations can’t replace heart-to-heart talks and all the emotions that go along with maintaining personal relationships.
“I like to joke that people know exactly what’s going on with every single person on ‘Duck Dynasty’ but they don’t know the name of their neighbor,” Robinson said. “That can’t be good for a sense of community and connection with people.”