ASPEN - The Aspen Hope Center stands ready - 24 hours a day, seven days a week - to provide expert help for those who are battling the holiday blues and entertaining thoughts of harming themselves or others.
That someone might consider suicide during the Thanksgiving-to-New Year's Day period is not a far-fetched scenario in Aspen. Though experts say it's a myth that suicide rates rise from late November to early January, there are enough recent examples locally to give rise to the notion that friends, relatives and co-workers should pay extra attention to those who are exhibiting signs of deep depression or entertaining suicidal thoughts during the holiday season.
Just last year, early Thanksgiving morning, well-known local restaurateur Scott DeGraff took his own life at age 47. The debt-ridden entrepreneur was found inside a vehicle in the garage of a house he owned in Aspen; the cause of death was carbon-monoxide poisoning.
Four years ago, in a very public matter that cast a shadow on New Year's Eve for locals and visitors alike, 72-year-old former Aspenite Jim Blanning left four homemade and gift-wrapped bombs in downtown locations, two of which were delivered to local banks. He was seeking money; the end result was that police evacuated a 16-block area on one of the busiest nights of the year, none of the bombs went off and Blanning shot and killed himself before he could be apprehended.
Though actual figures are hard to come by, state-sponsored studies in recent years indicate that the three-county area of Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield has the highest suicide rate in Colorado, according to Kris Marsh, president and CEO of the Aspen Valley Foundation. The foundation operates the Aspen Hope Center and its related "hopeline," a hotline for those in need of help with problems related to depression, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.
"It's really the highest suicide rate in the state, and the state has the 10th highest suicide rate in the country," Marsh said.
In small cities such as Aspen, the ramifications of a suicide are huge, she said, because people tend to know the victim or are close to someone who knows the victim.
Suicide rates are higher in the West and higher in rural communities, Marsh said. Compounding the problem for Aspen is its status as a resort - it's a party town where substance abuse can lead to mental-health issues and despondency.
"So there's a lot of drinking and drugging and that sort of thing," she said. "I think we're making progress as a community. We're slowly stemming that tide, but it's pretty hard to fight against a resort mentality."
People often move to a place like Aspen to escape their problems, she said, because they think it's beautiful and no harm can come to them in such magnificent surroundings.
"Wherever you go, there you are, and all of a sudden, whatever was bothering you in Minnesota is probably going to bother you here," Marsh said. "But sometimes it's even harder here because everybody's white, rich, beautiful and famous. It's wonderful in many ways, but there are lots of pressures in a place like Aspen."
The Aspen Hope Center doesn't simply take a call and pass it along to law enforcement or refer someone to a psychologist, she said. It's a dedicated team of professionals with a painstaking follow-up process that doesn't charge those in need.
"We feel strongly that if we can save one life, that's profound," Marsh said. "You can't always save everybody, but if we can help people find greater happiness and peace and joy in their lives, then that's what we want to be doing. This is something we are very committed to, and we will continue to be."