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Experts: Resort party culture promotes drug, alcohol use

Editor's note: This is the third part in a four-part series looking at suicide, drug and alcohol addiction, and mental health resources in the mountains. Read tomorrow's paper for the final part in this series, which focuses on resources for mental health and addiction in the mountains.

Licensed clinical psychologist Jill Squyres moved to Eagle from Texas two years ago. She thought that suicide rates and depression would be low in the beautiful mountains of Western Colorado, but she has quickly learned differently.

"It's very much a party culture," Squyres said. "A lot of people here live like they're in their 20s. Not like there's anything wrong with that, except drugs and alcohol tend to be a part of that."

Kim Baillargeon, of Aspen, lost her 23-year-old son Raymond Vieira to suicide Feb. 26. She read her son's death certificate to the 360 people at the Aspen Hope Center's community forum at the Wheeler Opera House in March. Her voice cracked as she read details about the "decedent" — details about how he killed himself in Snowmass Village that evening and that alcohol intoxication also contributed to his death.

Alcohol and drugs contribute to as many as 25 percent of suicides in the United States, according to the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention's Mantherapy.org. Vieira's blood alcohol level was more than 0.220 when he died, Baillargeon told the audience, adding that she has heard of as many as 20 Aspen High School alumni who either committed suicide or died from a drug overdose in the past year and a half. She said she wished community leaders would spend tax dollars on the things that improve quality of life rather than on pet projects.

"Substance abuse issues among our young adults continue to escalate and suicides are becoming epidemic," she said. "The beauty of the mountains, five-star hotels and number of special events pale compared to the dark cloud that hangs over us."

Mental illness and addiction

The lifestyle in mountain resort communities often centers on the party. Many move here for that lifestyle with dreams of being a ski bum and living life as if it's a permanent vacation. Many have moved here to get away from problems they faced elsewhere.

The hospitality industry in which so many people work also promotes that lifestyle, said Tim Harrington, founder of Sustainable Recovery, an alcohol and substance abuse recovery program based in Carbondale.

Harrington owned a restaurant in Aspen more than a decade ago, and the lifestyle helped him reach his rock bottom, he said.

"That industry is close-knit — very supportive around your usage," he said.

"Thirteen years ago in June, I had my last drink," he said. "About a year after that last drink, I started working at a recovery center."

While Mind Springs Health, the region's primary mental health provider, promotes treatment as the best option, Harrington said treatment is just the introduction to recovery.

"It's getting somebody stabilized. A little bit of education and then you're done; you can't stay forever," he said. "The very crucial work is yet to be done, which takes place in the community. The challenge is how do you sustain recovery once you've left treatment."

Harrington bases his programs on research that shows the best chance for recovering is continuing an intervention for 12 months. That means continuing everything from therapy to medication management to participation in mutual aid groups like Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, as well as ongoing psychotherapy.

Harrington has personally felt suicidal due to addiction and depression and said he has lost several friends to suicide in the Roaring Fork Valley over the years. If the conversation doesn't continue, he believes the suicides and addiction problems won't ease.

"What we're discovering more and more is that there is definitely a relationship between the mental illness piece and the addiction piece," Harrington said. "As high as 60 to 70 percent have both (addiction and mental illness)."

More research, more discussion

Of the eight Summit County suicides in 2013, three were alcohol-related. Of the 11 Garfield County suicides in 2013, nine involved drugs or alcohol.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services "alcohol and drug abuse are second only to depression and other mood disorders as the most frequent risk factors for suicide."

The relationship between substance abuse and mood disorders and what health care providers, both physical and mental, can do about it has become a subject of even more research. The National Institutes of Health is currently looking at ways emergency room practitioners, who are responsible for risk-assessment and referral of suicidal people in their emergency rooms, can develop evidence-based standards for identifying suicidal patients. Currently, there are none, although research is being done on the subject.

Identifying drug and alcohol addiction and suicidal ideations isn't the sole responsibility of emergency room staff, though. Suicide prevention coalitions throughout the region are trying to educate everyone about personal responsibilities in lessening the problem.

The Eagle County suicide prevention coalition Speak Up Reach Out is trying to address the problem through education within the schools and through local businesses, and through public discussion.

Speak Up Reach Out Executive Director Erin Cochrane-Ivie said substance abuse is a warning sign.

"The person who is sober might not make that decision, but once you add that extra layer, it makes it really easy (to make a bad decision)," she said.

Casey Wolfington, a clinical psychologist with practices in Summit and Eagle counties, says people with so-called addictive personalities might have trouble with self-control and self-discipline, but it's not an excuse.

"If you're someone who falls into things quickly, you need to know that and find ways to provide an external strategy," she said. "If one drink clouds judgment and you can't stop — if you're that kind of person, then you shouldn't drink."

But because making these decisions alone is often impossible for people who suffer from these kinds of problems. Harrington believes more people will seek the help they need if the community never lets the public discussion fade away. The discussion, he said, has to keep both drugs and alcohol use and suicide prevention at the forefront. But rather than react, the community has to get in front of the problem.

"There are so many common themes with a personal recovery and personal transformation," he said. "If we do decide to talk about this regularly, it has to be about hopefulness, empowerment and forgiveness, and it has to be blame- and shame-free."

Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at lglendenning@cmnm.org or 970-777-3125.