‘A life worth living:’ Behind the effort to bring light to suicide in Eagle County
Part I in a series: How a group of survivors, law enforcement officials, mental health clinicians, educators, nonprofit partners, concerned community members and those with lived experience are working together to save lives
Editor’s note: This article discusses death by suicide and suicidal ideation, and some people might find it triggering. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact your physician, go to your local emergency room, call Eagle Valley Behavioral Health’s 24/7 crisis line at (970) 306-4673 or Colorado Crisis Services at (844) 493-8255 or text TALK to 38255.
In an area where longevity rates are among the highest in the country, mental health has emerged as one of the surprise challenges to a long life for all in the community.
Over the 10-year period from 2011 to 2020, as data was emerging that Colorado’s High Country is one of the places in the world where people live the longest, 89 deaths by suicide were recorded in Eagle County, while 63 were recorded in neighboring in Summit County. There were 80 drug overdose deaths recorded from 2011 to 2020 in Eagle County, as well, and 54 in Summit County.
It’s an issue that needs to be brought up as an asterisk to the local conversation about longevity, and for some families, it’s an especially difficult discussion.
In the fall of 2020, the family of Johanna McKennerney celebrated the life of her aunt, who lived to be 100 years old. Two months later, the family would mourn her son’s life of 49 years as he died by suicide in Eagle County in November.
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McKennerney said her son was the type of person who recharged by being around other people, but he had also estranged himself from her in recent years. The change in social patterns as a result of the pandemic, she suspects, could have been difficult for him.
“I’m very indebted to his Vail family,” McKennerney said. “Because through them, I know he had long, happy times.”
McKennerney’s reference to a local family is common in ski town vernacular, and in areas where most of the residents did not grow up in the place in which they are living. Small groups form the close bonds akin to a family. That family grieves when a family member is lost, and the effects are felt around the community.
‘So many people affected’
At Rocky Mountain Taco’s location in EagleVail, a longtime local’s scarf hangs atop a skateboard deck with a graphic of Eric Harlan performing his signature blunt slide to judo kick. A light is aimed at the graphic, and a strong sense of grief besets the establishment if you inquire about the young man in the illustration, who died by suicide in Eagle County in February of 2020.
Co-owner Dan Purtell said after losing a lifelong friend, and dealing with the grief that comes with it, his mind has shifted, in recent months, to trying to help others learn through the experience.
Purtell said he thinks the local suicide prevention group SpeakUp ReachOut can help.
“There’s so many people affected by suicide here in this valley,” Purtell said. “We’re all survivors.”
Purtell plans to auction off a few limited-run skateboard decks in the coming weeks in an effort to raise money for SpeakUp ReachOut.
In July, the Vail family of McKennerney’s son also held a fundraiser for SpeakUp ReachOut in remembrance of a Sunday ride their friend had organized.
“I was so proud that they did that,” McKennerney said.
On Saturday, SpeakUp ReachOut will host the annual Memorial Butterfly Ceremony & Community Walk at Freedom Park in Edwards, where the locals will take time to remember community members lost to suicide, reflect on their journey and “revitalize hope in the community,” according to SpeakUp ReachOut. Lena Heilmann, the American Association of Suicidology’s Loss Survivor of the Year, will give the keynote address at 9 a.m., and the Memorial Butterfly Ceremony & Community Walk is scheduled for 9:40 a.m.
A decade of data, assistance
SpeakUp ReachOut was formed in 2009 after two suicide-related incidents occurred in succession in the town of Avon.
Avon Police Chief Greg Daly responded to both. One involved a local husband and father whose father Daly had met, coincidentally, two years earlier.
“His father was from the same county that I was from in Ireland,” Daly said.
Two years later, “One of the saddest moments in my career was having to tell his dad that his son was dead,” Daly said.
An 18-year-old person attempted suicide shortly thereafter, and the response to that incident involved the assistance of the local SWAT team. Avon council member Dave Dantas brought up the incidents at the next public meeting.
“He brought it up on council, at that time, asking then-chief Brian Kozak what can we do, as a town, about this suicide issue that we seem to have,” Daly said in 2020. “Brian Kozak then delegated to me, I was the second in command, and I’m still honored and proud that he did that. We set up what is now called SpeakUp ReachOut.”
The group sought the assistance of mental health clinicians, the school district, nonprofit partners, concerned community members and those with lived experience. It became an independent 501c3 and in 2018 hired Erin Ivie as the first full time employee. In 2020 the team grew to four full time employees.
“My job is to figure out, in our community, how do we take all that data, and all those things that we know about people who have died by suicide, and say, what could have been done differently — how could we have provided a service or intervened or provided something that would have allowed for this person to continue their life, and have a life worth living,” Ivie said.
Updating the data
The local data presents a scattered picture, and as years pass, sometimes the long-term data recorded reflects a different analysis of the circumstances surrounding deaths by suicide and deaths by overdose than the immediate information suggested at the time.
Ivie says a full death by suicide investigation, which gets to the deep details surrounding a person’s death, can’t be started until 90 days after the death. Questions which look into the person’s mood at the time, asking if there was a contributing problem with an intimate partner, or if there was a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health issue present, often won’t get answered and revealed for years after a death.
It could be a decade before we know the true effects of the coronavirus pandemic, Ivie said.
Eagle County, which was widely reported in 2018 to have 17 deaths by suicide, is now officially listed with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as having 14 deaths by suicide in 2018, and four deaths by overdose that year.
While it’s oftentimes not revealed until years later, the robust database of information gives hope to those looking for the best ways to give hope to others.
One of the areas where the data suggests Eagle and Summit County locals need help is in alcohol abuse.
In Eagle County in 2017, alcohol was present in the toxicology reports of 66.7 percent of the deaths by suicide, according to state data. That’s nearly double the state average of 37.3 percent.
In Summit County in 2018, alcohol was present in the toxicology reports of 75 percent of the county’s suicides, when the state average that year was 43 percent.
Information for 2019-2021 is not yet available, but Summit County Coroner Regan Wood says several deaths have occurred in Summit County in 2020 and 2021 due to excessive use of alcohol.
“I believe it’s just due to the last year and a half of isolation and self-medicating, and the effects are probably taking a toll on their bodies and organs,” Wood said at a county commissioner’s meeting in August. “(There’s) a lot of heart failure in a lot of 30-something-year-olds that we should not be seeing.”
On one person in their 60s, Wood said the autopsy showed extensive organ damage due to years of chronic alcohol abuse.
The following are not always communicated directly or outwardly:
• Threatening to hurt or kill him or herself, or talking of wanting to hurt or kill him/herself; and or,
• Looking for ways to kill him/herself by seeking access to firearms, available pills, or other means; and/or,
• Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide, when these actions are out of the ordinary.
Additional warning signs:
• Increased substance (alcohol or drug) use
• No reason for living; no sense of purpose in life
• Anxiety, agitation, unable to sleep or sleeping all of the time
• Feeling trapped – like there’s no way out
• Withdrawal from friends, family and society
• Rage, uncontrolled anger, seeking revenge
• Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking
• Dramatic mood changes
• Giving away prized possessions or seeking long-term care for pets
Source: American Association of Suicidology
Daly calls that type of situation a slower form of suicide, which needs to be a part of the suicide conversation as alcohol abuse is a mental health issue.
“It’s a way of living that’s obviously self destructive,” he said.
In having access to more data in recent years, and in receiving training to perform their own psychological analysis of those who have died by suicide, Daly said local law enforcement officers are better able to identify common factors among people who have died by suicide.
“Then we can address those factors as a community,” Daly said. “Unfortunately there is a lot of alcohol abuse which can be tied into the demise of these people, not necessarily from alcohol, but it’s a factor. But then there’s depression and a lot of other mental health illnesses people are dealing with. And we’re looking at the big question — is there sufficient services for these people in Eagle County and in Summit County?”
Ten years ago, Edwards resident Molly Booker was in a suicidal crisis. She had been suffering from depression for two decades, but didn’t realize it.
“For the first time, I told somebody,” she said. “I learned I had this thing called depression, this was an illness that other people struggle with, and I had a name now for this illness.”
Since then, she’s been on a journey, clarifying some of the misunderstandings she had about herself, letting go of the guilt she felt from a traumatic incident in her life, and realizing that she had been suffering from depression ever since.
“I was so stuck in the past that I didn’t want a present,” she said.
Talking about it out loud with others set her on the path to recovery.
“To have somebody to just speak my truth to, in a neutral space, where it was going to be received lovingly, was such a huge part of my healing,” she said.
Ivie said stories like Booker’s have helped local experts reach an important conclusion.
“When people have struggled with suicidal ideation, what worked?” she asks. “One of the things we know that is incredibly important is community connection.”
Booker found community connection through her faith, and she now shares messages of hope through her work as a pastor. At the SpeakUp ReachOut event in Freedom Park on Saturday, Booker will lead a benediction ceremony for those residents Eagle County has lost to suicide.
Death by one’s own hand doesn’t only occur by substances and suicide in Colorado, as high-risk behavior is often of the man versus nature variety in the High Country.
Extreme sports athletes who are mourning a friend have observed the possibility of an increased risk to themselves and others by seeking higher risk situations as a way to cope with the loss.
Summit County resident John Spriggs has enjoyed a long career as a professional skier, and says he knows first-hand how the cycle of grief can cloud judgement.
Now on a cleaner path, Spriggs said he can look back on a portion of his own career and see situations that he is fortunate to have lived through in dealing with grief and loss.
“I had mental health issues from losing so many friends skiing and around me through life, it made me feel like I was going to die early too,” Spriggs said. “So I was just going as crazy as I can (while skiing).”
In balancing it out, Spriggs said it was easy to turn to substances, alcohol especially, to find a low to balance out the highs. This only made the cycle worse, he said.
“I think that when you’re in depression, or you’re in a dark place with drinking and drug abuse, I think you can — especially up here with extreme sports and backcountry — you can start living with that ‘I don’t care if I die’ attitude,'” Spriggs said.
That person then, through this subconsciousness process, can also put others in danger, Spriggs said. Spriggs said realizing this in himself has helped him notice the potential for the problem in others.
“I see people going out and putting themselves in excess risk because, in a form, they’re taking that risk to offset their depression,” Spriggs said.
Spriggs said when he stopped drinking, sought help for substance abuse, talked to a mental health professional about coping with death and other triggers, and began talking about and acknowledging these issues with his friends and the people around him, his life started reaching a more even keel which also improved his skiing.
Spriggs said he’s been able to identify other triggers, as well, aside from the known trigger of losing friends which sent him on his mental health journey. Injuries are another example of an issue which can send skiers into depression, Spriggs said, something he is dealing with currently as he rehabs an injured knee.
“I still struggle with getting as much help as I need to stay in a good place,” he said.
And that, Spriggs said he has realized, is a lesson that even those on the other side of a mental health crisis need to be cognizant of in their efforts to live out a long and meaningful life.
“For a lot of people, mental health is something that you focus on, and then you feel like you’re in a good place, and then you stop thinking about it,” Spriggs said. “But it’s something that you have to constantly continue working on.”
Eagle Valley Behaviorial Health
(970) 306-4673 for local 24/7 crisis response; EagleValleybh.org
Colorado Crisis Services
(844) 493-8255 free and confidential; or text TALK to 38255; ColoradoCrisisServices.org
Crisis Text Line
Text TALK to 741-741 for free and confidential support 24/7
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
(800) 273-TALK (8255) Free and confidential, (en espanol, 1-888-628-9454), SuicidePreventionLifeline.org
Mind Springs Health
Local office: (970) 328-6969; MindSpringsHealth.org
LGBTQ crisis support
The Trevor Project
TrevorLifeline, TrevorChat, and TrevorText at (866) 488-7386; Text TREVOR to (202) 304-1200; thetrevorproject.org