This is the second part in a four-part series looking at suicide, drug and alcohol addiction, and mental health resources in the mountains.
All seven of Eagle County’s 2013 suicides were white working males between the ages of 25-54, the No. 1 demographic in the state at risk for committing suicide. Seven is the number the county’s suicide prevention coalition Speak Up Reach Out has on file, but anecdotal accounts point toward more than that. At the peak of the recession, Eagle County law enforcement and counselors at the Samaritan Center reported as many as one suicide per week.
Garfield County reported 11 suicides in 2013, all male. Summit County Coroner Tim Keeling reported 8 suicides there in 2013, seven of which were self-inflicted gunshots. Six of those seven suicides were men. All four of Pitkin County’s 2013 suicides were also men.
The epidemic of working-age men committing suicide has garnered the attention of the state Office of Suicide Prevention, which launched its Man Therapy campaign in July 2012. The website, www.mantherapy.org, is designed to reach working-age men through humor. The site tries “to change the way men think and talk about suicide and mental health,” and it provides men and their loved ones “tools to empower them to take control of their overall wellness.”
“Men are the mostly likely not to seek help — there’s a pride factor,” said Erin Cochrane-Ivie, the executive director at Speak Up Reach Out.
A Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention report shows that male suicides in Colorado outnumbered female suicides 3 to 1 from 2008-2012, accounting for 810 of the 1,053 suicides in 2012 alone.
The success of the Man Therapy website is bigger than Office of Suicide Prevention Manager Jarrod Hindman ever expected. In the first year, there were 44,873 visits to the website from Colorado, and 322,842 total visits. More than 54,000 visitors completed the emotional health self-assessment, 79 percent of whom said they would use the recommended techniques on the website to improve their mental wellness.
The site recommends “manly tips” to work through depression. And even the self-assessment questions are funny. The first one reads, “Did you know koalas sleep over 18 hours a day? Lazy little bastards. Tell me about your sleep habits.”
Hindman said men actually have lower depression rates than women, but because they access mental health care less often they carry a larger burden. Hindman calls it “rugged individualism,” something that is prevalent in mountains.
“Rural mountain communities often attract people who want to be isolated,” he said. “They think, ‘it’s your job to fix those things on your own and not seek help.’ But you can’t fix a brain disorder on your own.”
NO SHAME IN SEEKING HELP
The conversation about how to get working age men the help they need began in 2007, but Hindman said they didn’t have the funding to do anything. They knew they had to do something outside the box, though, in order to attract the attention of men.
“So we created a website with tools where men can assess where they’re at with their mental health beyond going and sitting on a psychologist’s couch, because we know men don’t want to do that,” he said.
Lawrence Altman of Aspen told the 360 people who showed up for a mental health forum at the Wheeler Opera House in March that doing just that — getting professional help — helped him get through depression when he moved to Aspen from New York after 9/11. He used to believe he had to “man up and get better,” but talking to a professional in the community on a regular basis has helped him become a better husband and father, he said.
“The idea that we can’t get help for mental or psychiatric issues but we can for physical issues is ridiculous and it has to change,” he said. “I think it will help the problem we have in this valley a little bit if people get over this stigma.”
He created the Aspen Mental Health fund through the Aspen Community Foundation for those who need mental health care but can’t afford it. He said he’s committed to getting the community the help it needs.
“There’s no reason we live in the most beautiful place on Earth and we suffer from all these terrible suicides and a lack of understand why any of this is happening in such a small valley like this,” he said. “So I thought if one person heard me say this in front of a bigger crowd than I ever imagined, that maybe they’ll get some psychiatric help if they need it, cause there’s no shame in it at all.”
DEPRESSION IN HAPPY VALLEY
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that more Americans now die from suicide each year than motor vehicle accidents. And the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that at least 90 percent of all people who die by suicide were suffering from mental illness — typically depression — at the time of their death.
In small mountain communities where everybody seems to know everybody, children and parents are reluctant to admit they need mental health services, said licensed clinical psychologist Casey Wolfington, who practices in Frisco and Eagle-Vail and serves as the clinical director for the Bright Future Foundation in Eagle County.
Living in a resort community inundated with happy vacationing tourists throughout the year also creates an idea that we should all be happy and feel lucky to live here, she said.
Another theory on why depression and suicide rates are so high in the mountains is that people have moved here from elsewhere, often from out of state, and have left their support systems of close family and friends behind. They have less people to turn to in times of personal crisis. The tourism industry also promotes partying, which can be synonymous with alcohol and drugs.
And for those who moved to the mountains to escape whatever problems they had back home, it’s the classic “wherever you go, there you are” reality that people face when they get here, said Tim Harrington, founder of Sustainable Recovery, a Carbondale-based drug and alcohol recovery program.
“A change in latitude and longitude doesn’t necessarily correspond with change in anything else,” he said.
Living in valleys with distinct season changes greatly affect moods, too. Aspen Hope Center executive director Michelle Muething said the high rate of sports and recreation-related injuries in the Roaring Fork Valley brings people down because suddenly they can’t get outside and do what they love to do anymore. She sees people who enter into depression the day the ski resorts close for the season, too.
“Everyone has a different set of coping skills, support systems and backgrounds,” she said. “I do think we will fight stigma for at least another generation. … The biggest thing that faces a lot of people is this high-tech, quick-moving society. You can go to the dermatologist and bam! Your wrinkles are gone. When people are depressed, they want to feel better instantaneously. But it’s a process, it takes time.”
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-777-3125.