Suicide of Robin Williams highlights local public health problem
The suicide of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams in August released a flood of brokenhearted tributes from his many fans, friends and admirers. It also brought attention to a public health problem that Coloradans suffer at a higher rate than most of the rest of the country.
Colorado’s suicide rate consistently tops the national average. In 2011, the state had the ninth highest suicide rate in the nation, according to the latest available Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
And it’s going up. The suicide rate in the state has jumped about 19 percent during the past decade, taking the lives of 1,004 Colorado residents last year, the state health department reports.
Like Williams, many of those who died were middle-aged and older men. In 2013, their suicide rate was roughly twice the statewide average.
People who study the trends said the nature of suicide makes it hard to pin down a reason that Coloradans experience more than their fair share of this tragedy.
But some of the worst states in the country for suicide — which also include Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico — share common traits, notes Jarrod Hindman, who runs the state’s Office of Suicide Prevention. They’re places with large stretches of unpopulated land, where geography can isolate people from neighbors and social ties.
Colorado’s ethos of rugged individualism also may be partly to blame, Hindman said, for its insistence on “picking ourselves up by our boot straps” instead of asking for help. “Those can be great social norms,” Hindman said, “but not if you have a brain disorder.”
Williams battled depression and addictions, key risk factors for suicide, and his wife has said that he struggled with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
In its investigative series, “Untreated: How Ignoring Mental Illness Costs Us All,” Rocky Mountain PBS I-News reported that the state’s disjointed and underfunded system of mental health care leaves many suffering from depression and other mental illnesses without adequate care — even if they want it.
But Hindman and others note that men are often less likely than women to seek help.
Dave Fishell, a 61-year-old resident of Grand Junction, calls himself lucky. He suffered his first major bout of depression 27 years ago, after losing his job as a features reporter at the Daily Sentinel. He was among those who sought out help when depression drove him to consider taking his own life.
In retrospect, he thinks he had a genetic proclivity toward depression; his grandfather had been hospitalized. But it took a life crisis — in his case, a job loss — to trigger its initial appearance. What followed was a yearlong spiral, he said, that affected almost every aspect of his life.
“When you’re at the very worst, when you’re really thinking suicidal thoughts,” Fishell said, “there’s no hope. It’s like being at the bottom of a deep well and you can barely see the top. It’s black, it’s dark and you don’t think anybody’s going to reach you.”
Somebody did reach Fishell. His wife, a nurse, urged him to seek psychiatric help. Throughout the intervening three decades, Fishell has been hospitalized three times for depression and regards himself as a success story in the way he has learned to manage the disease.
Fishell’s wife did something else that may have been crucial to his survival: She locked away his guns in a safe and held on to the key.
Men are more likely than women to use more violent means like guns in suicide attempts — another important factor in their higher rates of completing suicide.
Fishell is now a board member at the Western Colorado Suicide Prevention Foundation, which has started a campaign to teach gun owners and their families to do what his wife did for him.
Mesa County and its Western Slope neighbors have been state standouts in recent years — in the worst way possible — for their high rates of suicide.
Greg Rajnowski is the health planner for the Mesa County Health Department, which has identified suicide as one of the most pressing public health issues in the region.
Rajnowski also notes that middle-aged men and older men aren’t the only ones at risk. Young and middle-aged women attempted suicide more frequently than their peers in recent years, according to hospitalization data.
“It creates a cost to the health care system that’s much more pronounced for females than males,” Rajnowski said, noting that suicide attempts place a high burden on emergency rooms and behavioral health care providers.
At the same time, a scarcity of psychiatric beds in western Colorado and around the state mean that those who are depressed and suicidal sometimes have to travel hundreds of miles for a bed, I-News has found.
Danny Sandoval directs diversity, student advocacy and health programs at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. Sandoval, a Denver native who lost his uncle and a high school friend to suicide, now works with students to recognize the signs of depression and suicidal thinking.
Family members and friends can offer powerful support by raising the topic with people who seem to be suffering, rather than shying away from it.
“Suicide can be prevented,” Sandoval said.
Colorado’s new statewide mental health crisis hotline is open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year at 1-844-493-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In case of a psychiatric emergency, call 911.