The suicide of actor Robin Williams this month released a flood of brokenhearted tributes from his 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 U.S.
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 data.
And it’s going up. The state rate has jumped about 19 percent in the past decade, taking the lives of 1,004 Coloradans 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.
Researchers say it’s hard to pin down a reason that Coloradans experience more than their fair share of deaths by suicide.
But some of the worst states for suicide—which include Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico—share common traits, said 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 may also be partly to blame, says Hindman, for its reluctance to ask for help.
“Those can be great social norms,” said Hindman, “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.
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, considers 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 believes 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 year-long spiral, he says, that affected almost every aspect of his life.
“When you’re at the very worst, when you’re really thinking suicidal thoughts,” says Fishell, “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.”
His wife, a nurse, urged him to seek psychiatric help.
Over 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 his guns in a safe, and held onto 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.
Mesa County and its Western Slope neighbors have been state standouts in recent years for their high rates of suicide.
Greg Rajnowski is the health planner for the Mesa County Health Department, which considers suicide to be one of the region’s most pressing health issues.
Rajnowski said middle-aged 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,” says Rajnowski, adding that suicide attempts burden emergency rooms and behavioral care providers.
At the same time, a scarcity of psychiatric beds in western Colorado and around the state means that those who are depressed and suicidal sometimes have to travel hundreds of miles for a bed.
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,” says Sandoval.