Summit County on track to surpass its own record suicide rate; experts urge prevention, dialogue on crisis
June 23, 2018
It can start at the dinner table, once a week.
Over the phone. At church. On a hike. At school. On the lift.
Wherever the venue, whatever the mode, conversations can start. Conversations about how we're doing, how we're feeling, what to do if we feel lonely or hopeless and don't know why.
Honest conversations about mental health help stock emergency kits for the mind, so when a crisis hits we know what to do, who to talk to and where to go for help.
The conversations are desperately needed now more than ever.
Suicide rates went up 24 percent nationally over 15 years. That rate is up 34 percent in Colorado, where the rate consistently ranks among the highest in the country. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 24, only behind accidents.
Recommended Stories For You
The mountains aren't shielding the High Country from the crisis. In fact, Summit County is hurting more than most. Eight people have committed suicide in Summit as of June, which more than exceeds the five in all of 2017. The county is ahead of pace for a grim record set in 2016, when 16 Summit residents took their own lives.
Dr. Jules Rosen, chief medical officer of mental health service provider Mind Springs Health, said that there is no simple answer, although there are strong connections between suicide, severe depression and a rise in substance abuse. The reasons are as varied and unique as the person suffering a crisis.
One thing he is sure of, though, is that we're not talking frankly about the crisis at home or in public.
"Things like family dinner and community gatherings are becoming rarer and rarer," Rosen said, pointing out that technology and busy lives are making it harder for people to connect to each other.
"For example, a lot of kids in Summit play sports, and that means a lot of practice and travel," Rosen noted. "But a lot of the time, those practices or matches are happening during time families should get together and talk about things like what might be bothering them, what to do if they're feeling depressed, what warning signs to spot, and who to turn to for help."
Rosen noted that 82 percent of people who commit suicide on the Western Slope never sought help at Mind Springs, the largest provider for mental health services in the region. That means that those people probably didn't know where or how to get help before poor mental health became a full-blown crisis.
That lack of knowledge, Rosen said, is tied to a lack of open, trusting and ongoing conversations between people, whether it is with family, friends, classmates or co-workers.
It also creates a lack of understanding and empathy by those of us not experiencing a mental health crisis. Rosen said that trying to address mental health only when it becomes a crisis is like starting to discuss treatment options for someone on a respirator at a hospice.
"Telling a person who is severely depressed and possibly suicidal about how much they have to live for, they just don't experience life that way," Rosen said. "Depression turns off all the lights, and all they can see is darkness and despair."
Rosen said mental health providers help shine a light in that darkness to help people find the tools and tactics they need to start healing.
Of course, in a transient ski resort community like Summit, it can be hard to figure out how to even find the path to the mental health resources available. That's where Building Hope comes in.
Two years ago, with the support of the entire Summit community, Betsy Casey turned the despair and grief over her own mother's suicide into a mental health guidance and support nonprofit called Building Hope. Casey acts as program manager in collaboration with the Family & Intercultural Resource Center.
Building Hope is not a mental health provider, but acts like a trail guide helping people navigate through the local support network to find one. Building Hope helps connect those in need to people who can help, whether it's an individual counselor or a community that will listen and support each other.
Ultimately, Building Hope is all about its name.
"Suicide rates in the United States are on the rise and while these tragedies continue to happen at an alarming rate, we believe that there is hope," Casey said.
Casey and Rosen both agree that the path to hope starts with conversations. The recent high-profile suicides of beloved celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain has started a new conversation about suicide, one that Casey feels should be directed toward how mental illness affects us all, and how success doesn't insulate people from personal struggles.
"Suicide and poor mental health do not discriminate," Casey said. "They affect every race, gender, socio-economic status and age."
Casey has been working hard to try to break the stigma about mental illness, one that may be particularly strong in ski resort communities where many people pay far more attention to their physical health than their mental health.
"We would all be better off if we started seeing mental health as important and as routine as getting a knee replacement," Casey said. "Just like a heart attack or a stroke, a mental health crisis is a matter of life or death."
Casey and Dr. Rosen remind everyone that suicide is preventable, and depression is treatable. But it begins with conversation, and knowing someone is always listening.
If you or someone you know might be having a crisis, someone is available to talk 24/7:
Mind Springs Health Local Crisis Hotline: 888-207-4004
Colorado Crisis Services Statewide Hotline: 844-493-TALK (8255)
Text TALK to 38255
To learn more about Building Hope or for help finding local, state or federal mental health resources, visit BuildingHopeSummit.org/ or call program manager Betsy Casey at 970-389-1151.