One last sunset: National parks see high levels of suicides
Many of us are attracted to nature, expansive views and wild settings. This year millions of Americans will come west to visit our national parks, have a family vacation and make personal memories. Almost all will return home to talk of the wonders of mountains, canyons, swift rivers and brilliant stars at night. But a few will not.
A disturbing number of visitors to national parks seek wild settings, not for the solace of open spaces, but rather out of deep pain to end their lives.
Of the many issues related to America’s public lands, this is one of the most perplexing and hardest for staff to grapple with. It’s particularly difficult for National Park Service rangers committed to protecting people in the parks. In national parks, suicide is the second leading cause of deaths.
Rose Chilcoat is associate director for the environmental advocacy group Great Old Broads for Wilderness in Durango. Early in her career, she was a ranger at Mesa Verde National Park, and at the end of her season, a friend of another ranger killed himself in a Park Service trailer. She said suicide “is an act so horrific it is beyond comprehension. Especially so when the one who chooses such a path is a young, intelligent, vibrant person with a lifetime ahead of them.” Chilcoat added, “The last thing I expected to be confronted with as a seasonal park ranger ... was the suicide of a fellow ranger’s best friend. It shook my world and changed my beliefs. It was a profoundly sad and difficult time for those of us who were touched by it.”
And yet such violent acts continue.
At Fort Lewis College I teach a class titled, “National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” The class is always full, and I enjoy the diverse mix of students who take the course and vow over the summer to visit national parks they have not yet seen. A few of them seek full-time careers in the Park Service. One of my students, Shannon Assman, chose to write a research paper on suicides in national parks and during her in-class presentation we all learned about suicide “events.”
The Center for Disease Control with the National Park Service produced a comprehensive study on 84 national parks with 286 suicide events. Luckily, not all were fatalities. The most common methods distraught people use to try to take their own lives include firearms, falling, hanging, poisoning or drug overdoses and vehicle-related crashes. More attempts are made in the warmer months, the season now approaching.
Units of the Park Service with the highest attempted suicide rates are the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grand Canyon National Park, New River Gorge, Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Colorado National Monument. Why? Because of the settings.
Patrick Suddah, chief of ranger operations at Glacier National Park explains, “Toward the end of someone’s life, when they’re feeling a total sense of despondency, they want to return to a place of natural beauty ... for their final moments.”
These actions create an enormous psychological and financial burden on Park Service rangers who are already looking out for us by trying to keep the bears away, the campgrounds clean and the traffic flowing so that all visitors can share the national park experience which my hero, Teddy Roosevelt, called “essential to our democracy.”
Suicide events can cost up to $200,000 and require as many as 40 people for search and rescue that, sadly, may become body retrieval.
The CDC states, “Each death in the national parks represents a preventable event in a public place.” I’m not sure I agree with that. Do we need traffic barriers at every lookout point? Safety nets at critical cliffs? At Colorado National Monument depressed people have even ridden mountain bikes off sheer rock walls.
What’s possible except additional ranger training in suicide prevention, and even then, how can you predict a tourist’s behavior?
“Visitors come in and look despondent. They do not look healthy and they do not make eye contact,” says Mark Davison, chief ranger at Colorado National Monument. He adds, “Rangers are taught to simply ask, “Are you here to hurt yourself?”
So far this year rangers at the monument have found two potential suicide victims “on the other side of the railing and talked them back,” he said.
This is not an easy topic. My hunting buddy committed suicide five years ago. When fall comes around and I’m cleaning my rifle, waiting for deer and elk season, I inevitably think of our times together, where we camped and what he taught me. How tragic that the same magnificent landscapes in the West that draw millions of tourists also lure saddened individuals ready to plan their last sunset.
Historian William Cronin, in Ken Burns’ excellent public television series on national parks, describes these hallowed grounds as places of “intimate transmission” of values and beliefs, where Americans pass on their love of landscape and each other from generation to generation.
I remember my first trip to Mesa Verde as a child, and I’ve made certain that my sons have hiked the same trails and stepped into the same ruins. I’ll visit my favorite national parks again this summer, but in addition to surveying the scenery, I’ll look a little harder at my fellow visitors.
In camp, if someone seems lost and lonely, I’ll share a cup of tea or a beer with them and engage in some quiet conversation. It’s the least I can do to help out those hardworking rangers in the National Park Service.