Talking about suicide and asking about suicidal thoughts is hard. So audience members practiced at the Suicide Prevention Community Summit at Montezuma-Cortez High School.
“We’re better off having a conversation about suicide than pretending it doesn’t exist,” said Susan Becker, professor of psychology at Colorado Mesa University. Becker led the suicide prevention training Wednesday for about 90 people.
Suicide rates in the U.S. are at a 30-year high, and people living in rural areas are more likely to die by suicide than those in cities, said Mary Dengler-Frey, regional health connector with the Southwestern Colorado Area Health Education Center. Montezuma County has the second-highest per capita suicide rate in Colorado, at 12 per year, according to Coroner George Deavers. In La Plata County, 18 people have died by suicide in 2017, County Coroner Jann Smith said.
For every person who dies by suicide, about 11 more make serious attempts, Becker said.
“We are just learning with more recent data how much more people are at risk than we realized,” she said.
After examining the data for Southwest Colorado and conducting hundreds of interviews, Dengler-Frey identified suicide as one of three top health issues to address. The others are diabetes and opioid abuse.
The summit was a starting point for prevention work in Montezuma and Dolores counties. A similar event was held in La Plata County in May, and San Juan Basin Public Health has followed it up with a Let’s Talk campaign to reduce stigma around mental illness.
Knowing how to talk about suicide is important because far more interventions are carried out by friends and family than by professionals, Becker said.
Some of the warning signs to look for are changes in behavior, such as withdrawal, putting personal affairs in order, avoiding eye contact and increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
Some people will use direct phrases, including, “I’m done with it all” and “I’m tired. I just can’t go on,” she said.
If someone is thinking about suicide, it’s important to make sure he or she can agree to stay safe until speaking with a professional or connecting with help.
“You are the conduit between the person at risk and potentially more professional resources in your community,” Becker said.
Talking about problems can bring about healing, but there is a cultural tendency, specific to the region, that makes people particularly hesitant to talk about suicide, said Hilary Erickson, a community health worker with Axis Health System in Cortez.
For farmers and others who live in rural areas, the problem can be compounded by the lack of a natural support system outside of their family.
“A training like this brings a community together to be able to talk about it in a sensible way and talk about red flags and ways to intervene,” she said.
She would like to see additional education to help address the issue.
Audience member Natalia Mills echoed that sentiment.
“How is anything supposed to change if nobody is educated, and that comes in baby steps,” she said.
In the coming months, Dengler-Frey expects to hold a town hall, longer trainings and prevention events focused on youths in Montezuma and Dolores counties.