Vail Valley Voices: ‘Happy Valley’ suicide rate is all too high
Vail,, CO, Colorado
Editor’s note: This is the fourth part in a series about suicide.
Many people have no idea what resources are available to those at risk of suicide or to those survivors who have lost a loved one. Lack of resources is one of the most troubling concerns. Affordable and available counseling and treatment for depression and alcohol and drug addiction are some of the most formidable tools to combat suicide. Statistics clearly reflect those deficiencies when those are lacking.
Often, those who cannot afford treatment have few options. Health-insurance coverage for psychological or psychiatric services is limited. Many organizations offer sliding scales for those who cannot afford full rates, but even that doesn’t help when you have nothing at all.
Throughout this project, I have repeatedly heard the phrase “the system failed.” For some, there was never even a system in place to fail. Many smaller towns simply are not equipped to deal with those at risk. One of the reasons the suicide rates in urban areas are lower than in rural and small-town areas is that there are more resources available in cities.
I was concerned by the number of young people from this area I knew of who had taken their lives, and many agree that one of the highest-risk populations is the 20-to-25 age group. I wanted to talk with someone closely involved with young people and sat down with Mark Strakbein, principal of Eagle Valley High School.
“Kids today,” Strakbein noted, “are dealing with a multitude of challenges – divorce, hard economic times, problems within the family, teen pregnancy. Kids have much more responsibility than we did when we were that age. They’re forced to grow up at such a fast rate. Their parents are both working, so they’re not home, and this recession and economy bring more things to upset students. So we have to ask more of teachers today.”
He said educators are more keenly aware of the harsh dangers young people face today than ever before.
“Our school systems are set up to identify and work with kids going through tough times, and our philosophy is that nothing is too small to pay attention to,” Strakbein said. “At the first sign that something is wrong, we’re on it. We have 68 intervention programs to identify and work with troubled kids. Every teacher here knows that a big part of our job is to make connections with our students. So there is a tremendous support system in school.”
Perhaps that accounts for the fact that most of the young people we know of die from suicide not while in high school but in the years after graduating.
“It is the 20-, 22-year-old age group I fear for the most,” Strakbein said. “What we have available for them in the school system all of a sudden is not there for them anymore, or they don’t know where to seek out those resources out in the world. Suddenly they are living on their own, they don’t have a job, maybe they already have a family. Who is looking out for that kid when he’s 20? If a student here showed signs of turmoil, I could name you six things right now that we could do instantly to intervene and help them. But if you asked me what is there for a 21-year-old, I’m not sure I could come up with more than one or two things that are out there for them.”
I spoke to a number of young people who didn’t want to be identified. Each one opened up to me about how difficult it is to start a life someplace so expensive, and without exception, they all brought up the issue of drinking and boredom as factors.
“There’s nothing to do here,” one said. “The adults don’t want to admit it, but all the kids in school here drink. It’s a huge problem that no one wants to admit because it would upset their perfect world. So they get out of school, and they can’t get a job, and they can’t afford a place to live, so what to they do? They drink more. You hate staying here, but you can’t get out.”
While no one is affixing blame, many young people feel the adults around them don’t understand what they feel. They referred to a kind of denial I will call “Happy Valley syndrome.” Over and over, I heard young people say that their parents only see what they want to see and refuse to believe that life in the valley is anything but idyllic.
“They love their lives here,” one girl said, “so they close their eyes to the fact that us kids are miserable. As long as they’re happy, that’s all that matters. In the meantime, the kids don’t see any future for themselves. Where are you supposed to live when you move out of the house? Kids starting out can’t afford $1,500 to $1,900 a month in rent.”
Strakbein also said, “And let’s not also forget that we are 30 minutes away from a world resort. And access to that resort also means that access to everything else that exists in that resort such as drugs and alcohol. So we would be remiss to pretend it’s not there.”
That statement struck me because it reminded me of something one of the young people said to me: “If you spend any time in Vail, you see all this money and all these beautiful houses and all these rich people, and it makes you feel like a failure when you live downvalley and you can’t even afford a trailer to live in when you get out of school.”
So it appears that where we are possibly failing most is in that transition period between high school and successful adult life.
But let’s not forget the adults. Many of the suicides in the Western states are men in their 30s and 40s. Economic troubles, no work, dissolving marriages and the ever-present abuse of alcohol play a large role in that population.
One young lady I spoke to said, “I expect to get a call any day that my dad committed suicide.”
She went on to tell me that her father has spent years in and out of minor troubles with the law, going to court-ordered alcohol programs and then just going back to old habits every time.
“He’s promised to stop more times than I can count, and he never does,” she said. “And I know – I know – that one of these days he’s going to kill himself. And when he does, I won’t even care. That sounds terrible, but I just can’t care anymore. I’m finished crying about him.”
So what options are there for those in danger of suicide?
That is the same question Elizabeth Myers, executive director of the Samaritan Counseling Center, asked herself after experiencing the failure of the system
Awhile back, Myers, who is an administrator and not a clinician, was called in to help in talking down a suicidal subject. Because the person would not willingly go to the hospital for treatment and he had demonstrated that he was a danger to himself, Meyers’ only option was to call 911 for help.
What many people don’t realize is that the county Sheriff’s Office has limited resources. The only option in that instance is for someone to spend the night in jail. The subject was evaluated and released because he began to lie about what he was feeling and planning – understandable since no one wants to spend the night in jail, and that was the most and the best our system could do for this individual. It failed him. This led Meyers to begin talking to community members and leaders and representatives of various organizations. She found that past efforts to express this problem were met with solid brick walls because no one wanted to discuss suicide or acknowledge there was a problem here. No one wanted to admit that we were anything but the “Happy Valley.” After several meetings with key people, the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Eagle County was born.
The coalition consists of government workers, law enforcement personnel, medical field workers, individual therapists, emergency technicians and first responders and a number of caring individuals who have made it their mission to raise awareness and understanding, provide training to community members and caregivers and help save lives.
Let’s also not forget that those left behind often need help, as well. Heartbeat is a national peer support organization offering empathy, encouragement and direction following the suicide of a loved one. Monthly meetings of the Eagle County chapter, run by Jill Baron of the Sheriff’s Office, are held where those who are struggling after losing someone can find the kind of support that can only come from those who have been there.
Talk or listen, pick up some literature that might help you, and most of all, know you are not alone.
No one is ever alone.
So what are some of the available resources?
If someone is in imminent danger – they are holding a gun to their head or they are moments away from taking action – call 911.
If you are extremely depressed and have suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. This is a free, completely confidential, 24-hour-a-day hotline and national network of crisis centers.
Call the Samaritan Counseling Center of the Rockies in Vail at 970-926-8558. Call Colorado West Mental Health Services at 970-476-0930 (Vail) or 970-328-6969 (Eagle).
If you are a survivor, have lost a loved one and need some support and understanding surrounded by those who have been there, contact Jill Baron at Heartbeat at 970-309-7699. If you would like to become involved in or make a much-needed donation to the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Eagle County, contact Elizabeth Myers at 970-926-8558.
David Dillon lives in Eagle.