Small county’s 2009 suicides a stark reminder of Colorado’s high rate |

Small county’s 2009 suicides a stark reminder of Colorado’s high rate

Kevin Simpson
The Denver Post
Vail, CO Colorado
A foundation lays the groundwork for a home under construction at the Indian Mountain community in South Park, Park County.
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In a span of four weeks, one lay down in his bed and shot himself and another parked on the side of the road, settled into a camp chair and pulled the trigger. The very next day, when a man walked into the house next to his, found a hunting rifle and ended it all in the neighbor’s bedroom, Park County Sheriff Fred Wegener realized this wasn’t any kind of normal year.

“About midsummer, we really started thinking: What is going on?” said Wegener, whose suicide caseload for the year had just reached eight, matching the county’s most ever. “You wonder what drove them to such an extreme measure. And why up here?”

In a county of breathtaking mountain vistas, with barely 18,000 residents spread sparsely over 2,200 square miles, 15 people eventually took their lives in 2009, nearly doubling the previous record high.

While hardly a statistical trend, the sudden spike offered a jolting reminder that Colorado’s suicide rate continues to hover well above the national norm – and that experts still haven’t fully come to grips with a problem that pervades the Rocky Mountain West.

The state suicide rate has remained mostly flat since 1990, except for a brief dip around 1999, as Colorado developed its first strategy to combat the problem.

According to statistics from 2006, the latest year national data are available, Colorado’s rate of 15.1 per 100,000 population still well exceeded the overall U.S. rate of just less than 11. Other Mountain West states such as Wyoming, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico dwarfed even that with rates at 19 or higher.

The most recent compilation of state numbers put Colorado’s rate at 15.8 in 2008 – and marked the second year in a row that total suicides eclipsed 800.

About a decade into renewed emphasis on prevention, those numbers tell Jeanne Rohner that Colorado still has a long way to go.

“But they also say to me that we don’t know where we’d be if we hadn’t put together all the programs,” said Rohner, president and CEO of nonprofit Mental Health America of Colorado. “That’s the difficult thing about suicide. You don’t know the numbers that you’ve prevented.”

One number Colorado does know: the calls to the national suicide prevention hotline (800-273-8255) that originate within the state and get routed to operators in Pueblo. From only 318 in 2000, the volume rose steadily to 7,457 in 2008.

Colorado also created an organizational infrastructure to map out and coordinate suicide prevention, while a statewide coalition emerged to track the work of diverse advocacy groups. Colorado first lady Jeannie Ritter adopted mental health as her signature issue and gave political currency to prevention


Yet things still move slowly.

“It’s a pretty darn new science,” said Jarrod Hindman, program manager for Colorado’s Office of Suicide Prevention, established by the legislature in 2000. “There’s a lot of people at the national level who compare where prevention is now to where AIDS prevention was in the mid-’80s or early ’90s.”

In Park County, victims ended their lives in their own home, in a friend’s home, in a car, in a jail, in the woods, in a rocky windbreak at tree line. They left excruciatingly detailed explanations for their actions – angry screeds, apologetic notes, specific instructions regarding their possessions and their remains – or no communication whatsoever.

A few employed prescription drugs and carbon monoxide. Most chose guns. All were men. Only one was younger than 35. Those factors spoke directly to Colorado’s most at-risk population.

In a state where suicides outnumber deaths from motor-vehicle accidents, homicides, diabetes, breast cancer or HIV, the Park County cases defied easy statistical analysis.

Some of the incidents involved people who lived outside the county – as nearby as the Denver metro area and as far away as Alabama. Individual narratives, gleaned from Sheriff’s Office reports, suggest a wide array of driving factors: failing physical health, chronic mental problems, substance abuse, failed relationships, legal troubles, disintegrating financial situations.

Although tough economic times caused experts to gird for an uptick in suicides, lost jobs or dwindling prospects appeared to be only a contributing factor in most cases.

“In some, the economy might’ve been the tipping point,” said county coroner Sharon Morris. “But it appears most of these people had other issues going on.”

Sheriff Wegener said 2009’s total continues to be a concern, especially after four more people killed themselves in the county in the first three months of this year. And he added that his office responded to two attempted suicides just the day before.

“You start questioning what resources we have available here,” said Wegener. “And how do you lead a horse to water and make it drink? Services are always out there, but people don’t know about them or aren’t sure how you get to them.”

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