Guest commentary: Recognizing depression, suicide on the Western Slope
Colorado has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, and rates on the Western Slope are even higher. Across the nation, suicide is the second leading cause of death in children aged 12 to 17 years.
Ninety percent of those who died by suicide suffered from clinical depression or another mental illness. Promoting mental wellness and understanding when and how to get mental health treatment may help reverse these trends.
Positive relationships and a sense of belonging increase serotonin, the brain chemical responsible for calming emotions and improving mood. Good relationships are the greatest predictor of happiness, more so than money, education, or health. Social connectedness is a protective factor against depression and suicide, and is critical to mental health and wellbeing.
Alternatively, perceived social isolation, exclusion and loneliness increase stress hormones and reduce serotonin. Twenty-five percent of Americans report they have no one to confide in.
Loneliness is more lethal than obesity, smoking, excessive drinking or air pollution. Many people living on the Western Slope left their family and friends, creating new lives without natural support systems. This may be one reason why many residents feel lonely and isolated.
Other reasons include technological changes in communication (social media, texting), which can reduce social skills needed for healthy interactions. Negative interactions, whether face-to-face or online, as well as a lack of positive relationships increase the risk for depression and suicide.
Part of the solution to preventing depression and suicide is creating more opportunities for healthy connections, allowing the brain to recalibrate. Get to know your co-workers and peers. Listen actively. Put away cellphones and be present when spending time together. Decrease screen time, and increase real face time. Volunteer or join a club. Teach children to be inclusive and help others, share feelings as well as thoughts, and resolve conflict collaboratively.
Improving mental health includes timely treatment of mental illness. In Colorado, 19 percent of adults, 17 percent of adolescents and 13 percent of children are diagnosed with major depression, a significant risk factor for suicide.
Unfortunately, 60 percent of people suffering from depression do not seek treatment. Why not?
Some fear the stigma of mental illness or face cultural barriers to seeking treatment. Others may not know they have depression or, in some cases, due to their symptoms, lack the energy, motivation or insight to get help.
Depression is a brain disorder caused by many factors, including genetics and environment. Depression is not a character flaw or weakness. There are effective treatments for depression, even when it is severe, and 70 percent of people improve with treatment, often within weeks.
When is mental health care needed?
The typical reaction to difficult life events such as a loss or disappointment is sadness. Mental health care is needed when symptoms listed below persist for more than two weeks, which may indicate clinical depression:
• sadness or emotional distress prevents enjoyment of other parts of life;
• withdrawal from activities and avoiding friends or family;
• feelings of worthlessness or guilt;
• big changes in sleep, appetite, or energy;
• moving or speaking too slowly or too quickly;
• trouble focusing or making decisions;
• poor hygiene;
• increased irritability and agitation, often seen in children and adolescents.
Thoughts of suicide, dying or wishing to stop living always require evaluation by a mental health professional. There are specific and effective treatments to reduce suicidal thinking.
In addition to diagnosis and treatment, connecting with a mental health care team provides special therapeutic relationships with experts. These unique relationships actually rebalance brain chemistry, which increases emotional stability, reduces impulsivity and enhances the desire to connect with others, all of which can be factors in reducing suicidal risk.
Be aware of those among us who are depressed and, especially, those having suicidal thoughts. Reach out and ask if they need help and remind them that they are not alone. Connect the person with mental health care, which is available from mental health clinics like Mind Springs Health and Aspen Hope Center, primary care offices including Mountain Family Health Centers, and private therapists (Aspen Strong Foundation provides local listings).
Mind Springs Health, Aspen Hope Center, and local emergency rooms are available 24/7 to assist anyone with suicidal thinking.
Don’t wait to get help for yourself or others. Our lives depend on it!
Mary Horn in a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner in Aspen and Stephanie Rae Morris is an expressive arts therapist and clinician based in Rifle. Every Monday, The Aspen Times is hosting a guest column from a Roaring Fork Valley nonprofit, government agency or local entity.
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