The paradise factor

The paradise factor
Allen Best - 01/04/2018

From Durango to Aspen to Jackson Hole – the same question returns again and again: Why, in places suitable for calendar photos, do so many people want to check out early?

Western states lead the nation in suicide rates per 100,000 residents. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2015 (the most recent year for which national data is available), Wyoming topped the nation with 28 followed by Alaska (26.9), Montana (25.3), New Mexico (23.7), Utah (22.4), and Idaho (22.1).

By contrast, the national suicide rate in 2015 was 13.7, with New York (7.8) and New Jersey (8.3) having the lowest rates.

Colorado came in ninth (19.5) in the CDC’s 2015 rankings, and, according to the Colorado Office for Suicide Prevention, the state saw a record-breaking 1,156 suicides in 2016 (63 more than the previous high in 2015). These staggering numbers are reflected locally, with 19 suicides in La Plata County in 2017 and nine in Montezuma County.

Although Denver County had the lowest suicide rate in the state in 2015, it’s not clear if mountain resort towns are any worse than their urban or non-resort neighbors. An analysis done by blocs of counties suggests that places like Vail, Aspen and Telluride don’t necessarily have higher rates than Front Range cities.

Still, it’s impossible not to be struck by the irony of suicide amidst great beauty and wealth. Several stories have been written that probe this dichotomy. For example, after Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide in February 2005 near Aspen, the Denver Post discovered that the suicide rate there regularly spikes twice as high as the rest of the state and three times higher than the national average.

One plausible reason is something experts refer to as the “paradise factor.”

“Aspen just doesn’t always work out to be the utopia people think it will be when they come here. They come here thinking Aspen is going to solve all their problems. But we bring our problems with us,” Roy Holloway, chaplain for the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department, said.

The stories emphasize that it’s almost never one single cause. There are, however, many strong correlations.

In Eagle County, which saw 15 deaths by suicide in 2017, experts describe a link between substance abuse and suicide. People involved with the courts, both criminal and civil, are also at heightened risk, experts tell the Vail Daily. This can range from divorce or child custody to criminal charges.

What causes the drinking and substance abuse? In the case of Aspen, experts pointed to the pressures of trying to make a living in a high-priced location.

Isolation, too, seems to be a factor, even in small mountain towns. Experts said residents in ski towns tend to lack intergenerational relationships and deep social attachments, which protect against suicide. “They’ve moved away from their natural support systems, and they have to rebuild a support system,” Dr. Michael H. Allen, professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Depression Center, said.

Then again, it could be something as simple as the air we breathe. A 2010 study by Dr. Perry F. Renshaw, a psychiatry professor at the Utah School of Medicine, probed the correlation between thinner air and higher rates of suicide. The study found that those living at 6,500 feet in elevation or higher had a one-third higher risk than those at sea level. This was even after taking into account his finding that suicide rates go up with gun ownership and residency in rural areas.

Renshaw’s study was based on the hypothesis that the metabolic stress from insufficient oxygen intake significantly aggravates and contributes to suicide risk, particularly among people who already struggle with mood disorders or depression. Supporting his high-altitude argument was separate analysis of data in South Korea, which found those at 6,500 feet or higher had suicide rates 125 percent of those at sea level. Reached last week, Renshaw said he and others have expanded their study of the altitude-suicide correlation to Spain, Austria, Saudi Arabia, Peru and Chile to further lend support for the hypothesis.

The charitable fund created by Vail Resorts chief executive Rob Katz and his wife, Elana Amsterdam, has decided to focus on mental health issues. The Katz and Amsterdam fund will distribute $100,000 in grants to many of the communities where Vail Resorts does business.

According to a press release issued by Vail Resorts, residents surveyed in resort communities have indicated they don’t know where to turn for help when facing mental health issues. Other barriers can exist even if resources are available: cost, perceived stigma and language.

Elsewhere in Colorado, La Plata, Montezuma, El Paso, Larimer, Pueblo and Mesa counties were recently labeled as “high priority” areas for suicide prevention due to their high suicide rates by the state Office of Suicide Prevention.

The counties will be part of a collaborative effort between state and national organizations to create a “blueprint” for suicide prevention programs, according to the office. The plan is to help local communities in these counties expand resources and services. Funds would go to various groups such as first responders, the justice system, and religious, social and civic organizations. 

Missy Votel contributed to this story.