Summit County leaders mobilize to address alarming suicide, mental-health trends

Longtime Breckenridge local and philanthropist Patti Casey died by her own hands in January of this year. Now, her husband Tim and their two daughters are helping spearhead community efforts to spotlight suicide in the hopes of improving local behavioral-health resources.
Special to the Daily |

For nearly 40 years, Tim and Patti Casey built their Breckenridge-based real estate company, firmly establishing themselves in the commercial, social and philanthropic fabric of the community.

Originally from southern California, the high school sweethearts felt the pull of the Rocky Mountains, and, two years prior to launching Mountain Marketing Associates, Ltd. and starting their young family not long thereafter, they landed in Summit in the mid-1970s. But just short of celebrating four full decades together as business partners, Patti succumbed to many years of personal torment and ended her own life this January.

“It’s been six months, and it gives you some time to reflect,” explained Tim, “but it’s still very painful. She was the first to volunteer, the first to help somebody, the first to drive somebody somewhere, the first to write a check. She was an amazing women, she was kind, she was always there for everyone else. She just couldn’t be there for herself, which is really, really sad. She just couldn’t ask for help.”

While the friends and family of those who regrettably choose the path of suicide frequently experience uncertainty and perhaps even elements of shame in their grieving process over the sudden loss of a loved one, Tim and his two daughters are instead taking the approach of honesty and frankness. It’s all with the goal of helping change minds about mental-health issues and increasing access to care within the community.

“Guilt and shame won’t get you much,” he said. “We were very open at Patti’s memorial service and wanted people to be aware if they are struggling, it’s OK, and it shouldn’t be shameful. People who are depressed and are medicating their depression with alcohol or drugs can seek a different path, and, hopefully, the results will be much different than what occurred for Patti.”

Studies have shown that the rates of those who take their own lives in mountain and resort towns are commonly well above state and national averages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as part of “The Suicide Belt” that is the Rocky Mountain region, Colorado currently ranks sixth in the nation for annual suicides.

What the causes are — whether it’s the altitude’s impacts on the brain, increased substance-abuse issues, financial strains from heightened costs to live in these resort communities or any number of other contributing factors — that is still being researched. But the figures don’t lie. Confirmed suicides accounted for 10 deaths in Summit in 2015, and already this year, the county has experienced at least five, including one at Silverthorne’s North Pond and another that appeared in the obituaries of the Summit Daily, both just last week.

“There are scary trends in our community around behavioral health,” said Tamara Drangstveit, executive director of the Family & Intercultural Resource Center (FIRC). “We do view this as a growing crisis. It’s often difficult for folks just to get care, and then you add on to that the fact that behavioral health is still a taboo topic.”

So, in the pursuit of working to reduce the stigma surrounding both suicide and depression as well as revitalizing that conversation locally, the Caseys are assisting in initiating a collaboration on the subject by starting a donation fund with The Summit Foundation in memory of their late wife and mother. FIRC, as well as many of the county’s other heavy hitters, is also getting involved.

“We feel like the time was really ripe to bring people together to begin talking about this issue,” said Jeanne Bistranin, executive director of The Summit Foundation, “about mental health in general, and suicide also is an important component of that.”

While the process for deciding the best method of finding solutions for this complex problem is only in its infancy, the coalition’s plan is presently a three-pronged endeavor: The leadership group first wants to simply get the conversation going throughout the Summit community before identifying gaps in local care and expertise, and then finally coordinating efforts to improve the chances that someone will not only cry out for help when necessary, but can then follow it up by locating the needed support. The potential hiring for a new position, possibly under Summit County Public Health, to act as the point person on directing resources is also being discussed.

“We have a lot resources in the community,” said county manager Scott Vargo, “and we have a lot of people who could benefit from those resources if they knew they where they there. There’s just a lot of confusion, and you have confusion coupled with the stigma that’s out there that makes people reluctant to ask questions.”

For families like the Caseys, who have already experienced this type of tragic loss firsthand, the upgrading of the area’s mental-health system, as well as residents’ ability to speak up about their own demons when they surface, can’t arrive soon enough.

“It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the corner that no one wants to talk about,” said Tim Casey. “It’s time to step up … and figure out what services are being provided and what additional gaps need to be mitigated. I encourage people to continue the dialogue and really acknowledge the issues and problems and participate.”

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