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Wave of suicides in northwest Colorado part of “toxic stress” from coronavirus, experts say

Nine people have died by suicide so far this year, five in the past month in a region that has been fighting to expand mental health care and break down stigma around treatment

Cattle graze near the entrance of Dinosaur National Monument about 2 miles east of Dinosaur, Colorado, in Moffat County, on Saturday Feb. 23, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Five people have taken their own lives in the span of about a month in the mostly rural counties of Moffat and Routt, alarming mental health workers who worry the deaths are part of the pandemic aftermath. 

The latest suicide in Steamboat Springs, that of a well-known and beloved firefighter EMT, was the fifth in Routt County this year, already more suicide deaths than in all of 2019. The firefighter’s death was the third suicide in the northwest Colorado county since coronavirus struck in March, and follows the death of a long-time Steamboat psychologist who shot himself in his vehicle outside the police station after penning a note mentioning the stress of the pandemic.

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“We’ve had a rough few weeks,” said Mindy Marriott, who runs a local suicide prevention group called Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide.

The stresses of the pandemic — not only the health crisis and isolation but the economy and school closures — have exacerbated mental health issues in the area, Marriott said. 

“It has created chaos in many people’s lives who don’t even suffer from a behavioral health issue,” she said. “When you look at people who were already struggling, it just adds fuel to fire.”  

In neighboring Moffat County, west along U.S. 40 and the Yampa River, four people have died by suicide since mid-August. 

That’s nine suicides this year in the two counties that for a decade have worked to break down the stigma of mental illness and expand prevention networks. The hard work was paying off, prevention workers said, and in recent years, the number of suicides was declining in Routt County

Then came 2020. 

Suicide prevention coordinators in both counties said people calling their help line and walking through their doors are talking about coronavirus, how it has upended their lives and added to their financial struggles. 

The virus itself is not wreaking much havoc in Moffat County. In the past six months, the county has had 38 confirmed cases of coronavirus and one death. 

But the “fallout of COVID” is palpable, said Meghan Francone, director of the crisis services center Open Hearts Advocates in Moffat County. 

“We’re seeing the mental health fallout portion of that now as this stress has turned into toxic stress,” she said. “It changes the way our brains work. You can see the effects of toxic stress on MRIs.”

Despite increased awareness about suicide, the county still lacks enough resources to help folks dealing with mental illness, Francone said. Right now, though, she’s worried that people who are suffering are not reaching out for help, another long-lasting effect of the pandemic that has isolated people from their social circles and caused them to put off all kinds of medical appointments. 

Visits to the crisis services center are down, but Francone does not believe it’s “because there is a reduction in the number of people contemplating suicide.” Open Hearts has safehouses in Moffat County where people can come for help. “We are having an increase in suicides and people are not reaching out,” she said. “We have the deaths to show it.”

“I’m not attacking the Second Amendment. I’m saying facts.”

The recent suicides have been among adults age 21 and older, but Francone also is concerned about how the pandemic is affecting children and teens. Suicide is the leading cause of death in Colorado for people ages 10 to 24. 

“We have not talked a lot about our children and how they are being impacted by this,” she said. 

A key piece of the suicide prevention work in the region has focused on guns. All but two of the nine suicides in the counties this year were completed with guns.

Riders take a fall gondola ride in Steamboat Springs. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The challenge in the rural area, where many locals are gun owners, is finding ways to have productive conversations about suicide prevention without turning it into a political battle. 

“I do not see death by firearm as a political statement,” said Francone, whose teenage relative died by suicide using a gun that was not properly locked up. “If you choose to own a firearm, you get to choose the responsibility to keep it safe. Suicide is the most preventable death. I’m not attacking the Second Amendment. I’m saying facts.”

The two counties joined a state health department initiative called the Colorado Gun Shop Project, which educates gun shop owners on suicide prevention. Anyone who buys a gun receives multiple pieces of literature about gun safety and how to suggest to a friend who is struggling with their mental health that they give up their guns temporarily.

Some counties not seeing suicide increase during the pandemic

Mental health experts across the nation are watching the pandemic’s effect on the suicide rate. It’s too soon to tell what has happened statewide, since state health department statistics are not yet available for this year. 

Some counties are not experiencing more suicides so far in 2020 compared with 2019, according to data requested by The Colorado Sun from several coroner’s offices. 

The number of suicides in Arapahoe County, for example, is similar to last year. In 2019, 69 people died by suicide from March through the end of September. Since March, 63 people have taken their lives, the coroner’s office said. And in Larimer County, there have been 32 suicides since May, compared to 34 during the same months last year.

But in northwestern Colorado, mental health providers say the consequences of the pandemic have been deadly. Coronavirus-related stress comes on top of prior economic hardship in the region, one of the areas hardest hit by the collapse of coal. The economic woes in Hayden, Craig and Moffat County are not just pandemic-related as the region grapples with the closure of two coal-fired power plants and a coal mine in the next decade, which was announced in January

While it’s true that the reasons someone takes their own life are unique to each person, many of those seeking help for suicidal thoughts the past few months have mentioned coronavirus, mental health experts said. 

Colorado Crisis Line: A statewide hotline. 1-844-493-8255, or text TALK to 38255.

The May suicide of a pyschologist who had practiced in Steamboat for decades and helped open the former Steamboat Mental Health clinic was particularly tough on the small community, said Marriott, who ran into the 72-year-old man at the post office just hours before he shot himself in his vehicle outside a law enforcement building

“This was a guy that is a trained professional who has helped people all day, every day, his whole life,” Marriott said. “That has really been the first suicide we’ve had this year where we’ve had someone leave a letter about how the complications of COVID just took over.”

The psychologist, who had helped dozens of others work through the stresses of the pandemic and everyday life, had held stress management workshops and mentored fellow mental health workers. He formed the nonprofit Routt County Alcohol Council, which in 1976 was a pioneering approach to addiction treatment, his colleagues wrote in a tribute published in the Steamboat Pilot. 

“When loss sneaks up on us, we don’t have time to defend against it,” they wrote. “In the end, the survivors of loss are left with only our confusion, our memories and the words we never said. 

“For those of you going through it, keep going. Reach out to the people in your life … But above all — do not wait to measure the love in your life through its loss. Embrace the love in your life now.”

“What didn’t I see?”

Suicide prevention workers have ramped up efforts in recent years after Moffat and Routt counties were found to have some of the highest suicide rates in Colorado. 

Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide now has 50 mental health providers in the two counties who will take referred patients at a reduced rate. Executive director Marriott is working to collaborate with providers in other counties because she has heard from teachers and others that they don’t want to get mental health counseling nearby because they feel they know everyone in town. 

“It’s really difficult in a town this small to not be connected with somebody,” she said. “If they knew they could go see somebody on the Front Range, maybe they would have and maybe they would still be here.”

The nonprofit has trained everyone from the Steamboat Resort ski patrol to real estate agents to teachers about suicide prevention. 

“I think we have come so far in just five years,” Marriott said. “Five years ago we were still stuck in ‘cowboy up, we’re resilient and we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.’ We’re moving away from that to people having more education. We are saying that suicide prevention is everybody’s business.”

The border of Utah sits just a few miles west of downtown Dinosaur in Moffat County, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019.

In Adams County, just north of Denver, mental health workers are holding a community conversation this week to discuss the effects of the pandemic on mental health. 

The people walking through the doors at the 24-hour mental health urgent care center have more serious anxiety and depression issues compared to normal times, said Jaime Brewer, who is senior manager for the mental health agency, Community Reach Center. 

The community conversation, happening Thursday via Facebook and the online platform Zoom, will teach attendees the warning signs of suicide and how to better watch out for family, coworkers and others during this time of high stress. 

“It can be really hard for someone to reach out and ask tough questions around suicide because it’s uncomfortable,” Brewer said. “It’s OK to ask someone if they are feeling suicidal. It’s OK to reach out to neighbors and friends and ask them how they are doing.” 

A myth about suicide is that “if you talk about it, people are more likely to now go and act on suicidal thoughts,” she said. “The more likely we are to put it in the open, the more likely individuals are to get help.”

Gary Gurney, a psychotherapist and friend of the Steamboat psychologist who took his own life in May, said crisis helplines work best for people who are depressed but have not yet made a decision to kill themselves. The death of his friend showed him even more concretely what he had known before: Once people make up their mind to die by suicide, it is hard to stop them. 

“They go to a place in their brain that we can’t make sense of,” he said. “They just plan it out and follow through.”

Gurney points this out because he has seen so much guilt among family and friends after a suicide.

“That’s the devastating thing,” he said, “seeing people walking around asking, ‘What didn’t I see?’”


MORE RESOURCES: 

Sign up here for “Let’s Talk About Suicide,” a community conversation hosted virtually at 1 p.m. Thursday, by Community Reach Center. 

To request a free suicide prevention training in northwest Colorado, contact REPS, Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide:  steamboatsuicideprevention.com.

Open Hearts Advocates in Moffat County offers crisis support services.

In the near future, people across the nation can call 988 when in mental health crisis. Legislation championed by Colorado’s Republican U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner will make that a national suicide number. It won final approval in Congress on Tuesday and awaits President Donald Trump’s signature.

Rising Sun