Suicide rate in Summit County reaching record levels

Both number of suicides and suicide as a share of total deaths have been on the rise in recent years after remaining relatively stable for a decade.
Data courtesy of the Summit County Coroner’s Office |

Yesterday morning, an unidentified man was found dead at a construction site on an idyllic, aspen-lined stretch of Highway 9. According to dispatchers overheard on the radio, he died of a potentially self-inflicted gunshot to the head. He 43 years old.

If confirmed as a suicide, his death would be the eighth time this year — or possibly ninth pending the results of another death investigation — that someone has taken their own life in Summit County. That sets a pace for just fewer than 16 suicides this year, double last year’s total of eight. The share of total deaths that are suicides is also up from previous years.

Coroner’s reports on these cases form a grim catalogue of despair, with each chapter’s conclusion written in indelible ink with guns, pills or carbon monoxide.

One man walked into his girlfriend’s room after they had gotten into an argument, lifted a gun to his head and pulled the trigger right in front of her. Another man floated out into North Pond on a stand up paddleboard, then laid down and rolled off into the water strapped with a 40-pound bag.

In perhaps the most elaborate suicide this year, a 23-year-old man rented a hotel room in Dillon, taped over the air vents and combined chemicals in a container to create carbon monoxide. He was found in the bathtub with a note taped on the door warning hotel workers of the poisonous gas.

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There are many ways to gauge the state of mental health in a community, but these stories are the most visceral measure. They demonstrate in sharp relief what can happen when the mental health care system — which some say is currently in crisis — allows suffering people to slip through the cracks.

“It is simply horrifying, the number of suicides we’ve had,” said Sarah Vaine, the former CEO of the Summit County Care Clinic who now serves as the assistant county manager. “It depends on the level of crisis a person is in, but I would argue that there are gaps everywhere in our mental health care system.”

According to Mind Springs Health, which provides mental health care for Colorado’s Western Slope, the suicide rate has surged to its highest levels in 30 years and has become the second leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 34. Tom Gangel, a regional director for the nonprofit, said there has been an increase in activity across all 10 counties Mind Springs serves, and patient hours at its psychiatric hospital in Grand Junction have been climbing steadily.

A growing need

The gorgeous scenery and abundance of recreation opportunities in Summit County belie the quiet suffering of many of its people. In fact, suicide rates are typically higher in mountain towns, a puzzling phenomenon that defies simple explanation. The suicide rate in Summit County was 21.3 per 100,000 in 2015, according to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. The statewide rate is 19.4, one of the highest in the country.

“This is just speculation, but I think part of it is that Colorado is magnet state, and Summit County is a magnet area,” said Vaine. “I think some people come here with a fantasy of what life will be like in a resort area, but they end up isolated and working many, many hours to make ends meet. And the problems they came here with persist.”

Researchers comparing suicide rates have concluded that populations living at higher elevations may have higher suicide rates, making living in the high country a risk factor.

Access to care likely also plays a role. Being a rural county, Summit simply doesn’t have the same mental health resources as larger metropolitan areas, and as many as 21 percent of local residents are uninsured, a staggering three times the size of the state average of 6.7 percent in 2015.

In a survey of 44 Frisco residents in mid-August, lack of insurance and doubts about coverage for mental health were two of the most commonly cited barriers to care in Summit County.

The high uninsured rate has also put a strain on the Care Clinic, which recently faced a $400,000 budget shortfall and considered trimming behavioral health services to save money. (The municipalities rallied behind the clinic, pledging to help shore it up financially).

Mind Springs has also seen its workload increased, prompting it to begin fundraising for an expansion of its West Springs hospital that would double its capacity. At the hospital, which has the only psychiatric beds between Denver and Salt Lake City, the number of patient days has soared from 91 in 2011 to a projected 210 this year, according to internal numbers. Crisis services in Summit County have also risen, from 249 cases five years ago to a projected 621.

Recovering, and moving forward

The numbers, however, can actually conceal a key part of the problem: the number of people with mental illnesses that go undiagnosed and untreated.

“When mental health goes underground, it can be disastrous,” said Andrew Romanoff, CEO of advocacy Mental Health Colorado. A close relative of his unexpectedly committed suicide last year, and it was only then that the family learned the extent of her private struggle with depression.

“Mental illness was the only thing that could’ve killed her at 35,” he said. “But that’s what can happen when it goes untreated.”

In small, tight-knight communities like Summit County, the reverberations of a suicide can be great. Earlier this year, a prominent Breckenridge businesswoman, Patti Casey, took her own life. Since then, her family has been organizing awareness campaigns that encourage people to seek help when in crisis.

Mind Springs is also studying the potential cost of a crisis intervention center in Frisco, although a pilot program a couple of years ago did not produce promising results. The cost of maintaining such a facility can be extremely high, and like psychiatric hospitals, they can have trouble staying in the black.

At schools, having behavioral therapists on-site has shown to improve the likelihood that kids will follow through with counseling referrals. The Care Clinic has been providing these services at Summit’s schools for five years, and the number of visits has been growing, up 14 percent in 2015.

At the state level, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has re-tooled an anonymous tip app originally intended for bullying that has become an early warning system for suicides. Several have since been prevented after kids’ friends reported suicidal behavior.

There will also be a proposal on the ballot in November to increase the tobacco tax and use $34 million of the revenue for the prevention, screening and treatment of mental health and substance abuse disorders.

Suicides are complex, and every one is different. There are no silver bullets for preventing them, but experts and advocates agree that society needs a paradigm shift for mental illness: one that treats and seeks to prevent mental illness like it were a physical ailment. An effort like this — one that would more fully integrate mental and physical health — will take time, money and effort.

“There are things that are working well [but] there isn’t enough funding or resources,” said Vaine. “There also isn’t enough money being put towards prevention and managing issues before they become a crisis.”

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