A cry for help: Hardships of mountain living contribute to above average suicide rate
Social isolation, financial uncertainty and fear of a deadly virus lead to a rise in demand for mental health services during the COVID-19 pandemic
Summit County is an escape for many people, and for good reason. Nestled between the Gore and Tenmile ranges in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, its world-class ski resorts, myriad recreation activities and impeccable scenery make it one of the most visited counties in the state.
But it’s not an easy place to live.
According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s population-adjusted data from 2004 to 2020, Summit County’s suicide rate is 17.4 deaths per 100,000 people, which is higher than the national rate of 14.5 deaths per 100,000.
A quick glance at the department’s state website indicates Summit’s suicide rate isn’t actually on the upper end of the scale. Colorado counties like Montezuma and San Juan have rates above 30, but Jennifer McAtamney, executive director of mental health nonprofit Building Hope Summit County, said these comparisons don’t paint an accurate picture, mostly because the state’s counties vary so greatly from one another.
In the past 10 years, 85 individuals have died by suicide in Summit County. In 2020, nine people died by suicide, all of which occurred after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the county on March 5 of that year, according to Summit County Coroner Regan Wood.
The paradise paradox
How Colorado’s High Country is responding to a staggering increase in demand for mental health care in the wake of the pandemic.
• Aug. 27 | A cry for help: Hardships of mountain living contribute to above average suicide rate
As of Aug. 18 this year, four individuals have died by suicide.
The question is why. McAtamney said the county’s challenges can easily become too much to bear.
“When I look at data and when I look at the incidents, the biggest thing I see is that this can be a very tough place to work and live,” she said. “Summit County is a beautiful place, but there’s something called the paradise paradox. … There’s a feeling that it’ll solve your problems coming to a beautiful area where there’s quiet and peace, but the reality when people move here is that the cost of living is incredibly high (and) job wages are very low relative to our cost of living.”
When people move to Summit County, most are leaving their support group of family and friends behind and are faced with severe challenges such as the lack of attainable housing and adequate child care. Many residents work multiple jobs to make ends meet.
More troubling, Wood noted that some individuals visit the county specifically to die by suicide. Kirk Bol, manager of the vital statistics program for the Colorado Department of Public Health, said between 2011 and 2020, 63 residents died by suicide. That total increases to 77 when factoring in individuals who were not permanent residents of the county.
At its Aug. 24 work session meeting, the Summit Board of County Commissioners declared September as Suicide Prevention Month, which recognizes “suicide as a critical public health problem in Colorado and Summit County.”
The pandemic’s part
The pandemic isn’t making the situation any better.
Among those who died by suicide last year were Summit High School students Toby Gard and Christopher Darst. Heather Gard, Toby Gard’s mother, said the social isolation brought on by the pandemic played a direct part her son’s declining mental health.
Heather Gard said her son was a high-energy kid who liked to stay busy. He was a gifted athlete who played five sports, excelled in math and science, played two instruments and liked to read. He taught himself what he didn’t know how to do already, she said.
Toby Gard was the kind of kid who liked to be full-steam ahead, and when the world came screeching to a halt, his mother said it didn’t take long for him to fall off track.
“He was a mess,” Heather Gard said. “He kept asking to go for walks. He came home from one of those walks with a job at City Market. He kept telling us, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. I need to get out. I need to see my friends.'”
Experts agree that those already struggling with mental health issues likely suffered from increased feelings of isolation, fear and anxiety in the past year and a half. Although Toby Gard was never diagnosed with a mental illness and declined to see a professional, he told his mom on numerous occasions, even before the pandemic, that he felt like he didn’t belong.
“Those who were struggling at a certain level, the pandemic made it worse for everyone,” said Dr. William Elsass, chief medical officer at Mind Springs Health. “People who usually don’t suffer from anxiety or depression at all did experience anxiety and depression. And then people who were already having anxiety and depression, that just bumped up further.”
Throughout the pandemic, individuals coped by self-medicating through substance use and binge drinking, both of which are on the rise in the county and nationally. Many individuals suffered financial hardships when businesses were shut down, and some couldn’t access public assistance dollars due to their immigration status. On top of that, many individuals were constantly on edge with the worry of contracting the virus or passing it to others.
“COVID did a whole bunch of things that just made a community that was already fragile even more fragile,” McAtamney said.
For Toby Gard, the impact of the pandemic was unbearable. He started rebelling by sneaking out, vaping and drinking. His mother said she and her husband did let him meet up with one or two friends a handful of times, but it still wasn’t meeting his needs.
One night, after she caught him sneaking out and fighting with his sister, Leah, she took his phone away. During their argument, he told her “he didn’t know what to do.” Later that night, Heather Gard’s son was gone.
Just one week later, another student and Toby Gard’s friend, Christopher Darst, also died by suicide.
In these frightening months, whispers of a “suicide pact” were rippling through Summit School District. Heather Gard said the two boys were part of the pact. In those months, Summit School District counselor Kelly Finley said parents were terrified for their children.
Now, more than a year later, the numbers show the pandemic isn’t necessarily causing a spike in suicides. In 2020, there were nine deaths by suicide, and so far this year there have been four. Both of these numbers are lower than in 2014, 2016 and 2018, all of which had 10 or more deaths by suicide.
Nevertheless, mental health care providers are seeing an uptick in demand for services. Building Hope’s scholarship program has grown over 50% since 2019. In 2020, the organization gave out 611 scholarships, which is 77 more than in 2019. As of June this year, the organization had given out 244 scholarships.
Mind Springs is also seeing an uptick in demand for services. Spokesperson Stephanie Kiester said that for the 2019-20 fiscal year at the Frisco location, the organization saw 1,307 clients and provided nearly 8,500 services totaling nearly 7,500 service hours.
So who is most at risk of dying by suicide? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide affects all demographics. Some groups have higher rates than others, such as non-Hispanic whites, American Indians and Alaska Natives. Veterans, people who live in rural areas and people who identify as LGBTQ are at a higher risk for suicide, as well.
Locally, the county’s numbers also show trends. Of the 85 suicide deaths in Summit County in the past 10 years, 67 were men and 18 were women. The age range that saw the most deaths was individuals ages 25-34 followed by individuals 24 and younger.
Both McAtamney and Wood said they’re concerned about the county’s data in regard to young men who die by suicide. These individuals made up 40% of the county’s total cases in the past decade. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for adolescents nationwide, per the CDC.
Despite these overall trends, McAtamney pointed out that each case is different. Some people might make an impulsive decision while others might have thought about suicide for a long time.
Elsass explained why impulsiveness can be a big factor in whether someone dies by suicide.
“If the individual doesn’t have access to something lethal in the first so many minutes, they’re more likely to survive,” Elsass said. “If they can’t find anything, then they have (time) to think. And sometimes in that little bit of time, they’ll decide not to do it. That’s why we want to prevent access to lethal means.”
In any case, McAtamney said preventing suicide in high-risk individuals would be easier if experts and health care providers had a uniform answer for why people die by suicide.
“If we had a really good answer, my hope is that we would be able to stop all of them,” she said.
Adolescents at risk
Toby Gard and Christopher Darst weren’t the first Summit School District students to die by suicide. Finley said in her 10 years with the district, there was one other student who also died by suicide.
Summit School District Social, Emotional and Wellness Coordinator Joanna Robbins said all young people are navigating milestones that can be overwhelming, but factors like trauma in the home and societal pressures can put some people more at risk than others.
As soon as businesses shut down, health mandates went into effect and in-person classes switched to online learning, it introduced a whole new set of burdens that Finley said most adolescents didn’t know how to handle.
Finley pointed out that many families work in the county’s tourism and hospitality industry, and the economic impacts of the pandemic trickled down to students who were watching the effects play out firsthand on their parents.
“I think kids really felt that burden because they were all in that space together, whereas if your parent lost their job and there was a concern over food or rent, kids would go to school,” Finley said. “They’re out of the house eight hours of the day, and they’re not seeing that stress on their parents.”
Compounding the issue, kids couldn’t lean on one another in person for support. Ellen Clark, district student support services director, said it’s critical that adolescents spend time outside of the home and learn how to be independent. This type of development came grinding to a halt as the county shut down.
“At that age, kids are transitioning into adulthood,” Clark said. “They are developing their own sense of self. They’re separating from their parents. And so it’s unnatural for them to not have those experiences outside of their home where they are able to develop their own sense of self.”
Looking back, Heather Gard said she could tell her son was struggling but that it was difficult to identify whether he was acting out as a typical teenager or demonstrating signs of distress.
What: The Longevity Project with speaker Kevin Hines, a suicide attempt survivor and mental health advocate
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Tickets: Register for free at SummitDaily.com/longevity
“He was always pretty closed, but even the mental health (and) depression signals we were getting from him — it is really hard to tell the difference between just teenagehood and mental health,” she said.
In Toby Gard’s final days, he was having trouble sleeping, experimenting with drugs, and was agitated and irritated often. Even so, Heather Gard said he stayed active and never lost interest in activities he loved.
Since his death, Heather Gard has thrown herself into various causes to help others who are struggling with mental health issues. Part of her work includes advocating within Summit School District and getting involved with Building Hope. In doing so, she wants to tell her son’s story in hopes it will prevent more young deaths in the community.
“I feel like his story needs to be told for others to be able to not walk in my shoes because they’re painful shoes to walk in,” she said. “What people don’t understand with suicide is that, yes, that person is out of pain, but they transfer their pain to their loved ones.”
Call 911 in an emergency
Building Hope Summit County, 970-485-6271, 701 Granite St., Suite No. 270 in Frisco, BuildingHopeSummit.org
Family & Intercultural Resource Center, 970-262-3888, 251 W. Fourth St. in Silverthorne, SummitFIRC.org
Mind Springs Health, 970-668-3478, 301 W. Main St. in Frisco, MindSpringsHealth.org
Summit Community Care Clinic, 970-668-4040, 360 Peak One Drive, SummitClinic.org
Colorado Crisis Services, 844-493-8255, ColoradoCrisisServices.org
Colorado Department of Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health, 303-866-7400, CDHS.Colorado.gov/behavioral-health
Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, 970-306-4663, EagleValleyBH.org
Mental Health Colorado, 720-208-2220, MentalHealthColorado.org
National Alliance on Mental Illness High Country Colorado, 970-718-2828, NAMIHighCountryCo.org
West Springs Hospital, 970-201-4299, WestSpringsHospital.org
Man Therapy, 800-273-8255, ManTherapy.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255, SuicidePreventionLifeline.org/chat
Safe2Tell, 877-542-7233, Safe2Tell.org
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