It’s still National Suicide Prevention Month, and I decided to write about why Colorado has such a high suicide rate. High, not because of marijuana or the elevation (though I will circle back to that in a bit), but we’re talking 2-3xs higher rate. But we live in a such an outdoor person’s paradise. And it gets more than 300 days of sunshine a year. It just doesn’t add up.
I’m not doctor or scientist, but I certainly can hypothesize some of what’s going on. Keep in mind, although Colorado has a higher than-the-national-average for teen suicide, I’m going to mostly be speaking to the Adult population. Why? Because most of us are not from Colorado, and I do think this plays a factor in the epidemic.
Instead of writing ad nauseum like I usually do, I’ll try to just bullet point what I think is going on:
1. On the Front Range, we are a mile high. Factor in heading into the mountains, or living in the mountains, and you can be anywhere from 7,800 – 12,000 ft above sea level regularly. There’s less oxygen at that elevation.
2. That matters because with less oxygen, our Dopamine can continue to do its dance (i.e. sex, drugs & rock & roll) as it will constantly be motivated and rewarded. Meanwhile, our Serotonin is slower to release (i.e. well-being, cognition, rational thinking). Our balance is off. Not just a little, but actually a lot. We can go as hard as we want for as long as we want because our logical brain is not fully online.
3. Factor in all the action-packed sports, Social Media, and a small town. What do you have? A bunch of people who know each other and are pushing each into the risk zone because we’re constantly one-upping each other. Skiing, mountain biking, free-soloing… you name it. You post these pictures, people see you as a badass in a small mountain time. Another name for a badass? A Madman; someone who’s on a mission to die young.
4. None of this includes substance abuse, which is rampant in the ski industry. I can say that because I was in once! And it doesn’t include pre-disposition to mental health, specifically mood disorders. You are constantly doing all those dangerous badass things because your body isn’t regulating itself and you constantly want to live this dream ski instructor life.
5. Then, when you’re in your late 40s or early 50s (that it’s you someone manage to never leave), you are comparing yourself to your peers who are married, have kids, and careers and even if that’s something you never wanted, you are depressed in thinking about what you missed. You work in a town where full-time jobs don’t exist. You live in a town where long-term relationships also don’t exist. So you miss intimacy and you’re feeling unmoored because of never having a career.
6. Factor in the fact that these small towns really don’t have the mental health support that this community needs, and you get the perfect storm for mental health in Colorado.
This is where you may hear: “it’s not okay, to not be okay. Pick yourself up by your bootstraps. Suicide happens, and we don’t really talk about it.” We’re a small mountain town and even though you might think we’re progressive and bow to tourism, we’re actually hardworking rural humans just taking it day-by-day.
Now can you kind of see why Colorado has such a high suicide rate? We do live in a beautiful place, but don’t let the beauty of this place fool you into thinking mental health is not an issue here. It’s an issue everywhere.