Steamboat Springs Suicide experts don’t have a clear explanation for why the suicide rate in Colorado is significantly higher than the rest of the country, but a study of suicide rates since 1979 shows that several Colorado counties have among the highest rates in the nation.
Chaffee County, with 31.5 suicides per 100,000 people from 1979 to 2006, ranked the highest among Colorado counties, at No. 14 out of more than 3,000 counties measured.
Teller County ranked 23rd, with 29.1.
According to the study, compiled by msnbc.com using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Routt County ranked about 940th, with an average rate of 14 suicides per 100,000 people.
Suicide prevention coordinators in Routt County routinely note that Northwest Colorado has among the highest suicide rates in the country, and several of Routt’s neighbors appeared high on the list.
Moffat County came in at 211th, with a rate of 19.5, Garfield County was 369th with 17.7, Eagle County was 475th with 16.8 and Rio Blanco was 823rd with 14.6. All numbers are per 100,000 people.
Ronna Autrey, suicide prevention coordinator for Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide, said there are several reasons why rates in Northwest Colorado may be high, but it’s hard to pin down why neighboring counties have significant differences.
“Speculation is large ranching communities (are) isolated with access to guns,” she said. “The economy is certainly affecting things in places like Moffat, but not Grand.”
The top five counties by suicide rates are all in Alaska. The top two areas, the Wade Hampton and Yukon-Koyukuk Census areas, have rates higher than 100 suicides per 100,000 people.
Colorado overall is sixth highest in suicide rates, according to a “Preventing Suicide in Colorado” study by The Colorado Trust.
“While the state’s average annual suicide rate has declined 6.5 percent subsequent to 1998, with 15.7 deaths by suicide per 100,000 persons in Colorado, it remains significantly above the national average of 11 deaths per 100,000 persons,” the report states.
John Fleeker, county director for Steamboat Mental Health, said the seasons also play a role in affecting mental health in the Yampa Valley. He said that because Steamboat Springs gets enough sunlight throughout the year, devices such as UV lights may not be as necessary as in places such as Alaska.
“So what we see here probably is more lack of resources, getting snowed in, not being able to do a lot of activities out of your home because of the snow on the roads other than skiing, and not everyone skis,” he said.
Fleeker said mental health professionals tend to see a spike in their caseload in January, after the winter has set in and the holidays have passed.
To combat the winter blues, Fleeker said it’s best to combine physical and mental activities by exercising in the house, organizing, playing board games and staying active.
“It’s important to not isolate yourself” and to spend time with a social group, he said.
As the first heavy snowfall of the year blanketed the Steamboat area, Fleeker said that it’s important to not allow the weather to blanket spirits, as well.
“It’s really about being creative, finding things to do that are more physical,” he said.