A dark secret in the valley
Three men in Pitkin County put guns to their heads and pulled the trigger. A woman in Glenwood Springs hanged herself. Another resident of Glenwood Springs killed himself with a firearm.These five suicides in the Roaring Fork Valley have occurred in a span of less than two months, since the beginning of 2005, and have left many residents scratching their heads.Mental health experts know better, however. In a resort community that stresses fun and play and likes to ignore anything that gets in the way of those pursuits, the recent deaths betray a dark secret – around Aspen, suicide is not an anomaly.Both Pitkin and Garfield counties have suicide rates well above both state and national averages. While 11.1 in 100,000 people kill themselves in America, 17.5 per 100,000 do in Pitkin County and 18.2 per 100,000 in Garfield County, according to data collected from 1990-2003 by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. That works out to about 10 people in Pitkin and Garfield counties taking their own lives each year.Eagle County is at the national average with 11 suicides per 100,000 residents.These numbers reflect a national trend – suicide rates are higher in the western United States, with all but two – Alaska and Oregon – of the top 10 states for suicide located in the Rocky Mountain region. Colorado is seventh. The New York Times reported last week that Americans in Western, rural areas are just as likely to die from gunfire as Americans in major cities – the difference is who does the shooting.”Everyone likes to talk about ‘quality of life’ around here and the emphasis is on having fun, skiing, partying, going to restaurants, arts and music. But the truth is there is a dark side that this community hasn’t been overly eager to talk about,” said Jeff Kremer, programming director for the Aspen Counseling Center.State and local mental health experts don’t know for sure why suicide rates are high in western Colorado, but they have theories. Cindy Hodge, program manager of the Colorado Department of Public Health’s Office of Suicide Prevention, said residents in western counties such as Pitkin and Garfield often have a “frontier mentality” that stops them from seeking mental health counseling.”These communities tend to attract people who are more independent – just pick yourself up by your boot straps and handle it yourself,” Hodge said in a written statement. “Also, people often move out here and are therefore farther from their extended and natural family. Support systems are reduced.”Kremer said Colorado’s frontier mentality is reflected in state funding for mental health services, adding to the problem. Colorado ranks 31st among states for mental health funding and last for funding for substance abuse services.”Substance abuse and a prior history of depression or mental illness are huge warning signs for suicide, yet the dollars we get to treat the problems that contribute to suicide in this state are just woeful,” Kremer said. At least anecdotally, the recent suicides around Aspen support a connection between substance abuse and suicide. Hunter Thompson, who shot himself through the mouth last Sunday night, was a renowned user of drugs and alcohol. One of the suicides in Glenwood Springs involved a woman being treated in a detox center. And the Pitkin County coroner announced last week that sedatives and alcohol were found in the blood of a Snowmass man who shot his wife and later turned the gun on himself.So what’s being done? As a first step, the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation has organized a mental health conference in June that will assemble mental health professionals, physicians, psychiatrists and local individuals and family members who have had personal experiences with substance abuse, suicide, and depression. A discussion of suicide prevention is on top of the list.”Recent tragic events underscore the fact that in spite of our affluence and beautiful surroundings, Aspen residents are not immune from serious personal pain and suffering,” Aspen Valley Medical Foundation Executive Director Kris Marsh said. “Every local study has identified substance abuse and mental health issues as the top health concerns in our community. That’s why the first health conference presented by [the medical foundation] will focus on these issues.”For the public, Kremer hopes the recent suicides will help break the stigma surrounding mental health. Kremer listed warning signs for suicide and said anyone who is concerned about family or friends should speak about suicide outright.”Some people have this fear that talking about suicide may help it happen. But the best thing someone can do is have an honest dialogue with the person they’re concerned about. Talk to the person and maybe suggest counseling,” Kremer said.Kremer said anyone worried that suicide might be imminent should call the police or the Aspen Counseling Center 24-hour crisis hotline at 920-5555.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is email@example.comCommon warning signs of suicide• Alcohol or drug abuse• Articulating a plan• Giving away favorite possessions• Previous suicide attempts or statements revealing a desire to die• Person suffering from a perceived loss – of job, livelihood, relationship, health, etc.• Symptoms of depression including grieving, insomnia, excessive sleep or loss of appetite• Obsession about death and talk of suicide• Purchase of a gun or pills• Deteriorating physical appearance or reckless actions• Sudden happiness after long depression – person may seem suddenly upbeat but is sometimes that way because he’s decided to kill himself(List compiled from The Colorado Trust and the Aspen Counseling Center)
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