Why the despair of suicide among the great beauty of mountain towns?
by Allen Best
VAIL, Colo. – Suicide has been in the news again in ski towns. Eagle County, where Vail is located, had 15 suicide deaths in 2017, posing again the question of why suicide is an option in a place of such beauty and relative prosperity.
In New Mexico, suicide dogs the community of Taos. Some 48 people have died after jumping off the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the 7th highest in the nation, since it was completed in 1965.
In Aspen, Telluride, and 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. The national rate is 13.7, but Wyoming tops the nation with 28 followed by Alaska (26.9), Montana (25.3), New Mexico (23.7), Utah (22.4), and Idaho (22.1). Colorado came in 9th (19.5.)
New York (7.8) and New Jersey (8.3) have the nation’s lowest suicide rates, according to the Center for Disease Control.
It’s not clear that ski towns come in higher than their states. An analysis in Colorado done by blocs of counties suggests that places like Vail, Aspen, and Telluride don’t have higher suicide rates.
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 the writer Hunter Thompson committed suicide in February 2005 near Aspen, The Denver Post discovered that the suicide rate there spikes regularly twice as high as the rest of Colorado and three times the national rate.
Experts blamed it on 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,” said Roy Holloway, chaplain for the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department.
The stories have emphasized that it’s almost never one single cause. There are, however, many strong correlations.
In Eagle County, 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 include divorce, probation, and criminal charges. Divorce or child custody disputes can be a precursor.
What causes the drinking and substance abuse? In the case of Aspen, experts pointed to the pressures of trying to make a living in high-priced location.
Isolation, too, seems to be a factor, even in small-mountain towns. A National Geographic reporter in 2016 told about a suicide of a once vigorous athlete on an old mining road leading out of Telluride leading toward Imogene Pass. 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,“ explained Michael H. Allen, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Depression Center.
A 2010 study by a Utah neurosurgeon also probed the correlation between thinner air of higher elevations and higher rates of suicide.
Dr. Perry F. Renshaw, a psychiatry professor at the Utah School of Medicine, examined the hypothesis that the metabolic stress that results from the insufficient intake of oxygen could significantly aggravate and contribute to such risk—particularly among people who already struggle with mood disorders, depression, or both.
Renshaw and an associate found that suicide rates go up with both gun ownership and residency in rural areas. Even after accounting for those factors, they concluded that high altitude appears to be a risk factor for suicide. Those living at 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) in elevation had a one-third higher risk than those at sea level.
Supporting this argument was separate analysis of data in South Korea, which found those at 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) had suicide rates 125 percent of those at sea level.
Reached last week, Renshaw told Mountain Town News that he and others have expanded their study of the altitude and suicide correlation to Spain, Austria, Saudi Arabia, Peru, and Chile to further lend support for the hypothesis.
Renshaw in 2010 had told HealthDay that asthma and air pollution had previously been linked in research to increased suicide rates around the world.
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 $100,00 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.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth ages 14-25 in the United States.