Summit Daily editor’s column: End the silence around suicide in ski towns
July 27, 2016
By now, we all know what happened.
After leaving behind a trail of suicide notes on Sunday, Scot A. McChesney, a 55-year-old Wildernest resident, paddle-boarded out to the south end of North Pond in Silverthorne and rolled off into the water, taking his own life.
It had all been carefully planned, down to the weight-filled backpack tied around his waist. We know the who, the what, the how and the where of this tragic event, but the why — that stops us short.
That's because we don't really talk about suicide much up here in the mountains. We don't know how to — words fail us when pondering the pain, suffering and despair that could lead to such an extreme action. In a broad, societal sense, we feel as though we somehow failed the person when it happens, that one kind, loving gesture could have reversed that awful course.
We all know that a high suicide rate is the dark side of living in a ski town, but mostly we're silent about it.
According to a National Geographic report, 40,000 people commit suicide every year. After Alaska, the highest suicide rate in the nation belongs to Rocky Mountain states — Montana, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Idaho and Colorado — which have been dubbed "The Suicide Belt."
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Places like Aspen, Telluride and Utah's Salt Lake County, which is home to a handful of ski resort towns, far exceed the national suicide rate.
Why is the number of suicides so high in the Rockies? Is it the altitude, the income disparities, the hard-partying, alcohol-fueled lifestyle, the lack of mental health services, the isolation? We can speculate endlessly, but an important first step is to just start talking.
We have to talk about depression. We have to talk about mental illness. We have to listen to our friends and family members when they're in pain. We have to make them feel safe when they open up and talk about their innermost struggles. We have to connect them with professional help.
It was surprising to see in the same week as the North Pond drowning an obituary that was blunt and to the point about the fact that the deceased had committed suicide. There was no hint of stigma or shame in the notice about the long-time ski instructor at Keystone and Copper. Normally, obituaries gloss over the cause of death, especially when it was suicide. But not this one — this one even included the note.
I'm not suggesting that we glorify suicide. I'm suggesting that by being more honest and open about the topic, we might help save lives.
Luckily, I have never been directly affected by suicide. But I have dealt with depression firsthand and have seen the thin veil that separates the will to live from a desire for death.
Mental health has to remain a priority for the Summit County community. Consider the drowning at North Pond as a wake-up call.
Ben Trollinger is the managing editor of the Summit Daily News. Contact him at (970) 668-4618 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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