Vail Pass suicide is Summit County’s 11th suicide of the year; officials urge dialogue on crisis
SUMMIT COUNTY — The Summit County Coroner’s Office has determined that a man found dead at the Vail Pass Rest Area Thursday morning had committed suicide.
The man, a 42-year-old Denver resident, was found at the rest area located at Exit 190 on Interstate 70. His death is the 11th recorded suicide in Summit County this year. That number approaches the record 13 suicides committed in the county back in 2016, when Summit had one of the highest suicide rates in the nation.
The coroner had released the man’s identity and manner of death, however the Summit Daily will not publish such details due to the sensitive nature of suicide.
Suicide continues to be a state and national public health crisis. In 2017, 47,173 people committed suicide across the United States, with 1,175 committed in Colorado — both historical highs. Suicides and drug overdoses have been the main drivers of a three-year downward trend in American life expectancy, the first such downward trend since World War I.
Summit County’s consistently high suicide rate is two to three times the national average. In response to the epidemic, the county has been committing more resources toward mental health and suicide prevention.
The county’s latest effort came in the form of Ballot Initiative 1A, which will devote $2 million a year for the next 10 years toward mental health and suicide prevention programs.
However, Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons noted that this incident is one of many other suicides recorded in Summit committed by a person from outside the county, a variable largely outside the range of local efforts.
“You’ll find that many, if not most of these suicides are committed by people who come up here specifically for that purpose,” FitzSimons said. “Locally, as a community, we’ve been really trying to work on suicide prevention. But visitors coming here to attempt suicide and people who don’t seek help are two factors that are mostly out of our control.”
Betsy Casey, program manager for local mental health access and suicide prevention nonprofit Building Hope, confirmed that the majority of suicides in the county this year were committed by visitors from outside the county, as contrasted with 2016 when the opposite was true.
“I think it’s important to point out that the number of resident suicides has decreased since 2016,” Casey said. “Whether it’s a non-resident or a resident, however, we don’t ever want anyone feeling like they have to make a decision they can’t take back. It’s our responsibility to support both our residents populations and our visitors. And yet, it is difficult to move the needle on non-residents’ suicides because we don’t interface with them in the way we do with residents.”
Casey added that Building Hope has been looking into ways to reach out to visitors and offer them resources before they reach a point of no return.
“With the support of our Suicide Data Review Team, we are fine-tuning the information we receive from police reports, the police department and the coroner to understand which groups really need our help and where possible touch-points might exist for us to intervene,” Casey said.
Assistant county manager Sarah Vaine, who is in charge of the county’s health and human services, said that even accounting for outsiders, local suicide rates are still higher than the state average. Regardless, she said, one of the best ways to start reducing the number of suicides locally, statewide and nationally is to break down the stigma of talking about mental health.
“Stigma reduction is important, as is normalizing talking about mental health and the fact that depression and anxiety is incredibly common, that lots of people suffer from that,” Vaine said.
In trying to turn things in a positive direction, Building Hope has been working on a campaign to reduce stigma surrounding discussion of mental health and suicide. The campaign is expected to start rolling out in late December.
“We have spent the past two years working very hard with Cactus Communications to develop a campaign that has heart, speaks to our community, understands our culture and is authentic,” Casey said. “The campaign has been developed to be the catalyst that creates a culture shift in our community that normalizes mental health challenges, normalizes acts of person-to-person intervention, facilitates personal connection and points people toward resources.”
FitzSimons said that his own office will look to use the 1A funding to develop a community/crisis response team, which would be a unit made up of a law enforcement officer, a medical professional and a mental health professional that could respond to mental health crises more effectively.
As a community, FitzSimons said that the best thing we can do to help people in trouble is simple but important: We need to start talking to each other.
“As I always tell people, don’t assume you know the silent nightmare someone is walking through,” FitzSimons said. “If someone doesn’t want help you’ll never hear from them, and you won’t know if you don’t ask; you don’t know what you don’t know. We need to encourage dialogue about mental health and suicide. Talk to your kids. Talk to friends. Ask them how they’re really feeling. In some cases, just being asked how they’re doing is enough to make someone walk away feeling a lot better.”