Summit County suicide rate approaching 10-year low following major push by advocacy groups

Jack Queen

Four people have died of suicide this year in Summit County, a sobering statistic but still a welcome improvement from the double-digit numbers that have marked past years. If the trend continues, 2017 could have the lowest number of suicide deaths in a decade.

The major reduction comes on the heels of a concerted push by advocacy groups and local officials to combat mental illness and break down barriers to care. And while it’s difficult to draw a causal link with such a small sample size, the numbers indicate Summit is moving in the right direction.

“I would say one suicide is too many, but any reduction in the number feels like a win,” assistant Summit County manager and former Summit Community Care Clinic CEO Sarah Vaine said.

Of the four suicide deaths so far this year, at least one was not a Summit County resident. Three were caused by gunshot wounds, and one was from an intentional drug overdose, according to the Summit County Coroner.

There were 13 suicide deaths in 2016, the highest number on record, eight in 2015 and 10 in 2014. The most recent year with fewer than four deaths was 2007, according to coroner’s office statistics.

“We are very encouraged by the significant decrease in suicides in 2017,” said Betsy Casey, program manager for mental health advocacy group Building Hope Summit County. “We realize that this time frame is too short to indicate any long-term trends, but we are heading in the right direction and that feels really good.”

Casey’s mother, Patti Casey, died of suicide in 2016, along with several other well-known locals. Those tragic events galvanized the creation of Building Hope, which has partnered with other organizations to expand mental health awareness, encourage people to seek help and lower barriers to care.

“None of this work is ever done in a vacuum or by one entity,” Casey said. “It takes an entire community working together to accomplish something like a reduction in suicide rates. I am always blown away by the level of willingness, commitment and collaboration this community possesses to get things done.”

Since July, Building Hope has given out 47 scholarships to local residents to pay for their mental health care, Casey said. The group has also helped conduct more than 27 crisis intervention and mental health trainings.

Advocates like Casey were careful to not claim victory, noting that the trend, while encouraging, was only just emerging.

Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, who works closely with Building Hope and other mental health groups, also cautioned that the holiday season tends to see a higher incidence of suicide deaths.

“We’re in the most critical period now until New Year’s, but hopefully those numbers stay down,” he said.

FitzSimons credited the collaborative approach taken by groups including the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Family and Intercultural Resource Center and Mind Springs Health, Summit’s main mental health care provider.

“We’ve been attacking it from all angles,” he said. “We’ve put some tremendous efforts toward mental health.”

A key plank of Building Hope’s efforts has been “stigma reduction” and awareness efforts, designed to foster open discussion about mental illness. Since last December, more than 700 people have attended Community Connectedness events, and afterward, 77 percent said they would feel more comfortable seeking help if they needed it, Casey said.

Building Hope also sponsored a series of articles in the Summit Daily, titled Faces of Hope, that told the stories of people whose lives have been affected by mental illness.

Anecdotally, advocates said the awareness efforts could be encouraging people to seek help before they reach a mental health crisis — or before a crisis ends in suicide.

Data from the SCCC’s School-Based Health Center seems to back that up, showing steady increases in the number of student visits for behavioral health services since 2012, according to data provided by the SCCC.

“We have seen an increase,” said Summit School District spokeswoman Julie McLuskie in an email. “We are extremely pleased that students are accessing these services at schools when the need arises.”

Over the 2016-17 school year, there were 2,888 visits compared with 2,450 the previous school year and only 1,258 in 2014-15. Since August, there have been 690 visits.

While that could indicate more acute mental health issues among Summit students, increased use of services can also be a sign that more kids are reaching out for help when they need it.

“My hope would be that if people are reaching out, talking about it and feeling less isolated, that makes them feel like they have more options,” Vaine said.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Summit Daily is embarking on a multiyear project to digitize its archives going back to 1989 and make them available to the public in partnership with the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. The full project is expected to cost about $165,000. All donations made in 2023 will go directly toward this project.

Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.