With rising suicide rate, prevention becomes Summit County community’s focus
Summit County mental Health Services:
Mind Springs Health 24/7 helpline: 888-207-4004; mindspringshealth.org
Summit Community Care Clinic: 970-668-4040; summitclinic.org
Building Hope Summit County initiative: buildinghopesummit.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 support: 800-273-8255; suicidepreventionlifeline.org
National Alliance on Mental Health-High Country Colorado Chapter: 970-389-0808
Summit County’s suicide rate has now risen to three times that of the national average, and that has local groups banding together to locate ways of expanding access to care and generating more dialogue around the growing trend.
The county experienced an all-time high last year of 13 instances where someone took his or her own life, and there have already been a number of occurrences in 2017, too. The reasons vary, but the fact is the issue remains an increasing priority for the community, particularly with September representing National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month — as well as one that won’t disappear overnight.
“Suicide has profoundly impacted our Summit County community in the last half-dozen years,” said Gemma Taylor, a licensed behavioral health therapist with the Summit Community Care Clinic. “We’ve gone through a lot. We’re very unique with many of our factors.”
That list includes increased levels of transience, which can geographically isolate an individual or family from their usual support network. The high cost of living often adds another layer of stress with the need to maintain multiple jobs just to get by, and studies are ongoing on the science behind potential impacts from extended periods living at altitude.
As part of that continued work, mental health organizations, Mind Springs Health and the county’s emerging Building Hope initiative, sponsored a block of two films during this past weekend’s 37th annual Breck Film Fest. The “Stigma, Suicide & Hope” showcase featured two dramas addressing the subject, titled “#will” and “Holden On.”
There was nary a dry eye Saturday afternoon in the auditorium of Colorado Mountain College’s Breckenridge campus following the combined two-plus hours of screenings. Both narratives are based on true stories and depict high school-aged protagonists struggling to fit in one way or another as they tried to settle on life’s meaning and purpose. Each ultimately settled upon self-destruction.
“Mental illness and suicide are hard to talk about,” Betsy Casey, program manager for Building Hope, said during a panel discussion after the two films. “But this is happening in our community — this is happening within our homes, our friends, our families, our colleagues. The subject matter is difficult, and I’m just hoping that some day it’s not taboo, and that some day we can talk about it … like it’s a physical illness.”
Into Building Hope’s second year in existence, Casey has made it her personal mission to lessen stigma concerning behavioral health in the community in which she grew up — and that also saw her mother Patti fall victim to the borderline local epidemic in January 2016. The agency, housed at the Family & Intercultural Resource Center and founded with the assistance of nonprofits like The Summit Foundation, also makes minimizing barriers, offering trainings and helping those showing warning signs get proper treatment chief among its goals.
“I’ve heard so many stories like that here in Summit County — there just seem to be so many dead ends and wrong turns,” said Casey. “Being able to connect people with services immediately when they need them I think is invaluable to being able to get people the help that they need. And if we can reduce the stigma even slightly and people can not feel so much shame and not feel so much fear to be able to talk about these things, then they will utilize the behavioral health system.”
In “Holden On,” actor Michael Fahey plays Holden Layfield, a teenager in the mid-1990s in LeGrange, Georgia, and friend of writer and director Tamlin Hall. The lightly populated city — roughly the size of Summit County at 30,000 people — ends up providing inadequate care to Holden, who develops schizophrenia, and his parents Bob and Brenda, who attended Saturday’s screening, are left with few answers for how to support their beloved child.
Desiring not to let the story of Holden, the typically congenial friend and son who classmates voted the high school’s friendliest senior, go untold, Hall approached the Layfield’s about producing the film. Today, the enterprise is helping create conversation among adolescents nationwide as part of the effort to comfortably talk about suicide prevention.
“What we would like to do is to not let Holden’s life and death be in vain,” Bob Layfield told the audience at CMC. “You saw in the movie, we tried our best to figure it out. We just didn’t know if it was drugs or if it was the teenage rebellion, but when we finally found out it was just devastating. We hope that his legacy will go on through ‘Holden On’ to speak to other teenagers especially.”
Area mental health professionals noted how well the film, as well as Fahey’s depiction, humanized mental illness, in addition to the realities of current deficiencies in the health care system. In turn, it requires a communitywide approach to helping individuals and families overcome these medical obstacles.
“The treatment of the mental illness is not the job of the psychiatrist prescribing the medication or the therapist doing the therapy, or just the family saying ‘We love you,’” said Dr. Jules Rosen, chief medical officer of Mind Springs Health and Grand Junction’s West Springs psychiatric hospital. “It is the whole community finding, ‘How do we make these people feel whole in a community that they now look a little bit different from?’
“And there are some conditions where you get to recovery, and schizophrenia has about a 30 percent complete remission rate,” he added. “We think of it as this chronic illness, and it may be, but people can recover and live their lives. Depression is 100 percent treatable, and when people end their lives because of depression, that breaks my heart.”
Spreading the word that these illnesses can be addressed through treatment is part of the challenge, and the focus of the work presently at hand. It’s through this local unwillingness to prolong silence and misunderstanding of mental health issues that Summit plans to press on toward solutions for its escalating suicide rate.
“We have a phenomenal community of support,” said Taylor. “We’ve all been able to work together to support our youth and to support our families, but I think there’s always more we can do. This is a difficult thing for a lot of us to do, but I think as a community we’re working on training all of our professionals and getting to a point where that is … a normal part of our physical being — our human being — is addressing our mental health.”
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