Suicide does not discriminate in Roaring Fork, Colorado river valleys
Local groups lean on hope to help those struggling to overcome mental health crisis
Pitkin and Garfield counties share some bleak trends.
More than 120 deaths by suicide occurred between 2015 and into 2021 within these Western Slope neighbors, according to data compiled by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Garfield and Pitkin county coroners.
“It doesn’t matter how pretty it is where you live or how much money you have,” Pitkin County Chief Deputy Coroner and Investigator Audra Keith said. “I think that people have problems everywhere and struggle with mental health, and stuff that goes on in the world definitely affects people’s mental well being.”
Throughout Colorado, 7,295 people have died by suicide between 2015 and 2020 (2021 numbers are not yet available).
The Centennial State saw 1,294 deaths by suicide in 2020, or roughly 22.47 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people.
In the same year, Garfield County saw 31.64 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people. Pitkin County saw 22.51 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people.
The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to drive discussion about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year’s project focuses on mental health. The Aspen Times and Glenwood Springs Post-Independent are partnering over the next month and we will explore topics in mental health including resources (Aug. 26), substance use (Sept. 3), suicide prevention (today) and law enforcement (Sept. 17).
Our project culminates with events Sept. 20 in Aspen (6 p.m.) and Rifle (noon) with a panel discussion of local leaders and speaker Kevin Hines. An award-winning global speaker, best-selling author, documentary filmmaker, and suicide prevention and mental health advocate, Hines has reached millions with his story of an unlikely survival. Two years after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he attempted to take his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Since the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, thousands of people have tried to kill themselves by leaping. Only 34 have lived and he is one of them. For more information or to register for the local events, go to aspentimes.com/longevity.
Yet one inspiration drives everyone toward wellness: hope.
The tenacity of hope is proven through the stories from those who’ve lived it.
They come from all over the Roaring Fork and Colorado river valleys. Personal stories of overcoming depression, isolation, anxiety and instrumenting the dark experience as octane to help as many people as they can.
Helping to create such outcomes are the professionals, specialists and volunteers of Garfield and Pitkin counties. They’re on the front lines combating what seems to be an endless, oftentimes invisible war destroying many people’s lives.
Their underlying message?
Reach out, talk to someone, understand that it’s OK to seek help. The fight is well worth it.
Glenn Lee started giving away all his possessions. Anything that meant something to him was gifted to someone else.
“That was a huge telltale sign that something was not right,” said his daughter, Vanessa Lane.
Then, two days before the birth of his first granddaughter, the 45-year-old Lee took his own life, and then Lane found herself fatherless at the age of 21.
“There is an incredible sadness that takes over,” said Lane, who grew up in Denver and moved to the Roaring Fork Valley when she was 28. “There is self-blame. Could we have done more, and what did we not do right?”
Now a peer recovery coach with Mind Springs Health in Glenwood Springs and a sitting member of the Zero Suicide Committee, Lane uses her own harrowing experiences with suicide to prevent it from happening to someone else.
Though the tragic event in Lane’s life birthed self-isolation as she spent the next 10 years battling anxiety and depression, the power of conversation prevailed.
It started with her mother.
“My mother was always someone I talked to about this,” Lane said. “When people die with the idea of this as their only solution, it hurts my heart. I was thinking that I was gonna take what I was suffering from when I was a kid, and I just want to talk about it and talk about it.”
Lane said face to face conversations with other people who are suffering makes a difference.
“You’re worth talking about,” she said. “Let’s talk about why you feel this way.”
Major signs of suicide contemplation
• Erratic, uncharacteristic behavior
• Mentioning suicide in conversation
• Vocalizing self-negativity
Initiating the conversation
Starting a conversation with someone you suspect is going through a tough time shouldn’t just start with the question, Are you OK?
Garfield County Suicide Prevention Coalition Chair Mason Hohstadt said the person being asked could reply, “I’m fine,” and that’s that.
Instead, use observation to your advantage. If someone you know isn’t participating in normal, daily activities, ask about that. If someone you know is doing something uncharacteristic, ask about that.
You haven’t been out mountain biking with me in awhile, why is that? You’re drinking or using more drugs, why is that? You’ve missed church the past five Sundays, why is that?
“‘I’m worried about this for you,'” Hohstadt said. “Then you can move that conversation to, ‘Are you thinking about hurting yourself?'”
When it comes to exhibiting signs in relation to suicide, no one fits into the same category and nobody suffers from the same thing, Lane said.
People do, however, commonly share one action when they’re in the midst of suffering: prolonged, uninterrupted isolation.
Oftentimes, Lane said it’s especially men who struggle in seeking help. They either fear the stigma or simply do not trust the counselor with the information.
But there are other signs to look for.
In Lane’s experience, when someone casually brings up suicide in conversation, that’s a red flag worthy of intervention.
“I think just somebody even talking about it or threatening, whether it’s to get attention, it doesn’t matter what it is,” she said. “That is enough of a red flag to have that conversation.”
In addition to talking about suicide, exhibiting risky, out-of-character behavior or vocalizing self-negativity also deserve a helping hand, Lane said.
Because the grief never ends, Lane said. It’s always there.
“But I feel like if you can get out and help someone else that is suffering, it makes it better… it makes it better,” she said. “The sense of missing them never goes away, but getting out there and doing something makes a world of difference.”
PRACTICING THE DISCIPLINE
Allison Daily is well acquainted with loss.
Daily’s brother, Rod Snyder, died by suicide in 1990. At 24, she was the one to receive the phone call, and she was the one who relayed the news to her parents.
Daily said this tragedy is a big reason why she’s director of Pathfinders, a nonprofit focused on helping people during times of grief and loss.
Number of deaths by suicide in Pitkin, Garfield counties between 2015 to 2021:
She’s facing that prospect of loss again now. Her father isn’t doing well. His heart is starting to go out. Doctors recently put him on a pacemaker and defibrillator. Meanwhile, Daily’s husband, Art, died in December 2020.
And Daily’s mother has macular degeneration. She can’t see, making it difficult for her to care for her ailing husband.
Daily said she was the one to initiate an end-of-life conversion with him. They discussed funeral services and various loose ends.
“It’s a discipline in what I do,” she said. “I’ve had to really practice what I talked to others about and really go deep. Actually, what’s beautiful about it is that it’s enabled me to be able to help and support so many people on a deeper level than I ever have been able to.”
Daily puts these heartfelt skills to work with the bereaved after a suicide occurs.
Her motivation is for people to not run from their feelings but to process what’s taken place, she said. Because when Snyder took his own life, Daily said she ran away from her feelings for a while.
“There’s usually guilt involved. There’s people who saw the person last, or they had the last conversation or they had a fight beforehand, so they feel that responsibility,” Daily said. “I don’t try to take those feelings away, because people’s feelings are real. But what I try to do is help them process into where they can get to a place where they’re more comfortable.”
Processing involves talking about the relationship the bereaved had with that person, Daily said.
It can give them an avenue for forgiveness, Daily said, and for “trying to help them to take steps forward to live from a place of loving themselves and honoring that person, instead of staying in the anger.”
Suicide elicits strong feelings, Daily said — ones that can come to a head when they’re bottled up.
“We have such judgment around mental illness or mental conditions,” she said. “But for myself and my brother, I started to really understand where he was at. Did that make it OK that he did that? No. But at least now I understand more of where he was coming from and why he made that decision.”
“It’s a really lonely existence when we do that,” she said. “When we bottle things up and we don’t talk with someone or we don’t get the help that we need, then it just leaves room for really disastrous or explosive decisions.”
CURBING THE TRENDS
Mason Hohstadt is preparing for something big: The Out of the Darkness Western Slope Walk.
The fundraiser, done in correlation with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, is slated for Sept. 25 in Glenwood Springs. Registration is 9 a.m. and groups will begin walking at 10 a.m. People can also register online.
Anyone is invited to come to the Glenwood Springs Community Center and walk for something that has affected many people throughout the Western Slope. The route comprises Midland Avenue and walking over the pedestrian bridge.
“We utilize those dollars to get more people trained to give those types of training and education out into the community,” said Hohstadt, chair of the Garfield County Suicide Prevention Coalition. “Most of the time, most of the people who walk are survivors of loss.”
Sept. 25 will also see Aspen host a similar fundraising event: Hike, Hope, Heal. Late registration starts at 10 a.m. at Mollie Gibson Park. The walk begins at 11 a.m.
Additional race information can be found at aspenstrong.org/hike-hope-heal.
Garfield County Suicide Prevention Coalition started in 2006 to “meet the ever-increasing number of suicides that happened in Garfield County,” Hohstadt said.
The effort was something Hohstadt felt compelled to join based on personal experience.
“I’ve been thinking about this the past couple days,” he said. “I have mental health struggles on my own. I have been feeling isolated, feeling left behind — all of those things.”
Hohstadt, a former public health worker in Denver who devoted academic and grad school work to researching HIV, AIDS and Hepatitis C, is driven by a passion to help others.
This is especially true when it comes to suicide.
Hohstadt said the coalition is working on an individual level to help people understand the resources available — and access them.
“One in five people are going to have a mental health challenge in their life,” he said. “That’s a very conservative number; 70 million people in this country will have a mental health challenge or issue in their lifetime.”
“So,” Hohstadt added, “how do we as public health (organizations), which does have a focus and a framework for helping population level, get to a place where we can really move the needle to help people understand?”
The work, however, never ends, Hohstadt said. The mission is to make the shift from the idea of being an outcome organization to a more holistic approach.
“All of these things are interconnected,” he said. “The work will never end it, but it probably will not always look like it does right now.”
Note: Resources taken from a mental health map available on AspenStrong.org
Counseling, therapy, case management
• How to get help: Call 970-718-2842 or visit AspenStrong.org.
Mountain Family Health Center
• How to get help: Call 945-2840 or visit MountainFamily.org.
Mind Springs Health
• How to get help: Call the Aspen office at 970-920-5555 or the Glenwood Springs office at 970-945-2583. Also, visit MindSpringsHealth.org.
Colorado Crisis services
• Call 1-844-493-8255 or text TALK to 38255.
• Aspen: 970-925-5858
• Eagle: 970-306-4673
• Garfield: 970-945-3728
Grief and loss
• Pathfinders: 970-925-1226
Child and family
• Aspen Family connections: 970-205-7025
Family Resource Center
• Roaring Fork office: 970-384-9500
• Parachute: 970-285-5701
Servicios en español
Mind Springs Health
• Aspen office: 970-920-5555
• Glenwood Springs office: 970-945-2583
Mountain Family Health Centers
• Call 970-945-2840
• Directorio de terapeutas: 970-718-2842
• Call 719-650-5978 and speak with Gabe Cohen.
• Email Cohen at email@example.com.
• Visit DiscoveryCafe.org.
• Visit Discovery Cafe at the Colorado Mountain College Rifle campus at 3695 Airport Road, Rifle.
West Mountain Regional Health Alliance
• Call 970-429-6186
• Visit WestMountainHealthAlliance.org/covid/
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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