Funds fight suicide | SteamboatToday.com

Funds fight suicide

Grant helps Routt, Moffat counties start prevention program

Susan Cunningham

In November 2001, 31-year-old Shaun Autrey was married with two young children, and was on the brink of a promotion to vice president.

His parents, Ronna and Mike Autrey of Steamboat Springs, visited Shaun at his Maryland home for Thanksgiving that year. The day his parents started the trip home, he left a note saying he always would love and miss his family, and he disappeared.

A few days later, Nov. 29, he was found in a nearby park. He had hanged himself.

Shaun was not addicted to drugs or alcohol, he loved his two children, and he had a good job. He had shown no signs of depression, at least none that his parents had recognized.

“He was ‘Joe average’ guy,'” Mike Autrey said. “(He) didn’t have all these problems that you want to think are what causes this to happen.”

But as Mike and Ronna Autrey began to put the pieces together, they began to see things Shaun did or said, and circumstances he was dealing with — including the threatened state of his marriage — in a different light.

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They thought back further about the life of their star student and athlete, an easy-going guy who befriended everyone he met, and they realized that maybe during different points of his life, he struggled with depression.

Shaun had never been to a doctor to get treatment for depression.

Shaun’s story is not unique. Nationwide, statistics show that 90 percent of suicide attempts are related to physical changes in the brain that result in depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Many people dealing with such mental illnesses never see a doctor.

That’s something the Autreys are trying to change. Depression and other mental illnesses are physical problems that can be treated with medication, they said. Getting that word out could help reduce the stigma surrounding the illnesses and help prevent suicides.

A recent grant to Routt and Moffat counties from The Colorado Trust is helping to do just that.

The grant is for $150,000 during three years, and with it, the two counties have formed a program called “Reaching Everyone: Preventing Suicide.”

The statistics

Routt County has seen an average of five suicides a year since the mid-1990s, said Tom Gangel, division director for Colorado West Mental Health.

In a county of about 20,000 residents, that’s significant.

It is a rate of about 25 deaths per 100,000. In comparison, Colorado has an average of 17 suicide deaths per 100,000 people, and nationwide, there are about 11 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.

About 95 percent of the people who have committed suicide in Routt County showed symptoms of depression before taking their lives, but few had seen a doctor specifically for treatment of depression or a mental illness, Gangel said.

“(Most people) haven’t given us a chance to attack their illness,” Gangel said.

Gangel has been in Routt County for five years, and he said he cannot remember a suicide in which the person had not used drugs or alcohol before completing the act.

About half of the people who committed suicide were substance abusers.

Besides depression or other mental illnesses, a chief commonality among suicide victims is a sudden life change with tough circumstances, such as an embarrassing mistake, a serious crime, or financial difficulties, Gangel said.

Moffat County saw few suicides through the 1990s, but since 2000, it has averaged five or six a year, Gangel said.

The Rocky Mountain region has the highest suicide rate in the country. International research has shown that suicide rates often are highest in cold, rural, resort, mountain communities, Gangel said.

According to emergency contact logs, there were 43 suicide attempts in Routt County and 154 calls that involved suicidal ideation, said Sara Ross, coordinator for the “Reaching Everyone: Preventing Suicide” program.

In 2004, four suicides were reported in Routt County, three of which took place in Oak Creek, according to the Routt County coroner. There have not been any to date in 2005.

Gangel said that he considered the number of suicides from the Oak Creek area to be a “blip,” and that he couldn’t pick out any trend it could represent.

A grant for three years

Based on the alarming suicide statistics in the Rocky Mountain region, and the fact that suicide is the ninth-leading cause of death in Colorado, The Colorado Trust started an initiative to stop suicide.

Last spring, the program awarded three-year grants to 10 groups, including Routt and Moffat counties, and it will award the grants to another 10 groups this year.

Before the grant, Routt County had the Suicide and Crisis Intervention Lifeline program, and Moffat County had the Suicide Awareness: Facing the Enemy program. The $150,000 grant is helping unite those separate efforts into one, the “Reaching Everyone: Preventing Suicide” or REPS program, Gangel said.

Since April, there have been collaborative meetings with representatives in both communities, including hospital workers, law enforcement officers, coroners, private practitioners, officials of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, and families and friends of people who have committed suicide.

One top goal is to educate people about the problem of suicide, and to help them understand that depression is a treatable, physical illness. The group is conducting frequent presentations and a media campaign to achieve that goal.

“If you’re feeling depressed, someone is out there who can help you, and if you’re feeling suicidal, there’s another option,” Gangel said.

Another goal is to screen for depression and suicidal thoughts while an adult is at the doctor’s office or hospital. Screening can be done with questions on a form, and with questions from doctors and nurses, such as whether someone feels down or has considered hurting him or herself.

Medical professionals are an important part of preventing suicide, as many suicidal people go into an emergency room or visit a doctor in the weeks before they commit suicide.

The grant ensures an emergency worker is available on call around the clock to do risk assessments, which determine whether a person needs immediate mental health help. The grant is helping to establish referral protocols so it’s easier for people to receive treatment.

With the grant, every adult who has been referred to mental health services will receive a follow-up contact, and more support for survivors — or family members and friends of people who commit suicide — will be available.

Neurobiological disorders

One in five people across the United States will be affected by depression at some point in his or her life.

Carol Gordon, a licensed clinical social worker, wants people to understand that depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are physical illnesses.

Just like people would go to the doctor if they had the flu or a broken leg, they should go to the doctor if they have the symptoms of depression.

“I hate the word ‘mental illness,’ because that’s part of the stigma,” Gordon said. “I think of them as neurobiological disorders.”

When she gives talks to students, she tries to make that physical aspect clear by making several key points to her audiences:

n Our brains and spinal cords are made of nerves, which look like spaghetti and act like electrical wires. They send electrical messages from our brain to our body parts, telling them to work.

n Our thoughts are a sort of electricity running down our nerves in our brains. But, there’s one problem with the electricity metaphor. Those nerves in the brain are made of billions of individual nerve cells. No two of the nerve cells touch. But we can function because in between each nerve cell is a pool of chemicals, which allow for the conduction of electricity.

n If the right chemicals aren’t there, the electrical signals slow, which means our thinking slows, and we can’t problem-solve, so we become angry and irritable. It also means we can’t concentrate, and we start to feel hopeless. Those are all symptoms of depression.

Chemical imbalances can be caused by factors such as genetics, substance abuse, diseases, trauma, brain injury and lifestyle.

“Depression is looked at as a personal weakness in this society,” Gordon said. “It’s actually a physiological change in brain chemistry. And it’s very treatable.

“In the presentations, I give the information about that physiology in the hopes of destigmatizing the subject. We need to talk about it with each other. That’s how we’ll save lives.”

The work of survivors

Hindsight, Mike and Ronna Autrey said, is a great thing.

They spent five days with their son before he killed himself, and they couldn’t see or tell that he was desperately hurting. But now, looking back, they think they can see some signs.

Shaun had been to the emergency room twice in the month before he took his life, once complaining of back pain and once after passing out. Doctors couldn’t find anything wrong, the Autreys said.

He bought a rope the week before he killed himself, and told his wife that if she left him, he would commit suicide.

When Mike and Ronna were visiting, he told his parents how his son didn’t like the “dark, wooded part of the park,” Mike Autrey said. That’s where Shaun eventually hung himself.

Now they can pick out those signs, his wife added. But then, “we didn’t understand depression.”

They are involved with the “Reaching Everyone: Preventing Suicide” efforts, and are working to educate people across the county and beyond that depression is a physical problem that needs to be treated with medicine, just like diabetes or other chemical imbalances. In the months and years after Shaun’s death, they said they have each received medicine for depression during certain periods.

If more people let go of the stigma around depression and other mental illnesses, then more people struggling with such issues will get help, and the number of suicides will decrease, they said.

“It’s a correctible death,” Mike Autrey said. “It is definitely a statistic that could change if this country got behind it.”

When Ronna Autrey talks to classes of students about suicide, she passes around a photo of Shaun that was taken when he was about 25 years old. In the photo, the handsome man is holding his young daughter in his lap, reading to her.

Recently, she talked with a group of seventh- and eighth-graders, and each student examined the photo closely.

“I wanted them to understand he was a real human being, he’s a dad, he’s reading to his kid,” she said. “And I wanted them to understand that could be their best friend.”

“It is an illness,” she said about the physical nature of depression. “And that’s what we have to get out there, is that it is an illness that can be treated, and the stigma has to go away.”

— To reach Susan Cunningham, call 871-4203 or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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