State’s suicide rate is high, but addressable, experts say

Colorado’s Office of Suicide Prevention works to build resources, spur action

Posted 9/17/18

Suicide in Colorado is often talked about in terms of statistics — the state is consistently in the top 10 in the country for suicide deaths. But to Sarah Brummett, the director of the state Office …

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State’s suicide rate is high, but addressable, experts say

Colorado’s Office of Suicide Prevention works to build resources, spur action

Posted

Suicide in Colorado is often talked about in terms of statistics — the state is consistently in the top 10 in the country for suicide deaths.

But to Sarah Brummett, the director of the state Office of Suicide Prevention, the real story is not in numbers, but in working to impact the lives of the individual people struggling with suicidal thoughts.

“It’s about so much more than prevention and intervention,” Brummett said. “That’s like waiting for someone to show up in the emergency room with a heart attack, rather than talking about the lifestyle changes to prevent heart disease. We’ve got to talk about community health and wellness, about seeing suicide as part of a web of issues.”

Brummett leads an office at the forefront of coordinating resources to address the state’s stubbornly high suicide rate, and during September — National Suicide Prevention Month — she works to communicate the office’s efforts.

The statistics compiled by her office are disquieting: 1,175 Coloradans died by suicide in 2017, the highest number ever, and about twice as many as died in car wrecks. Colorado’s suicide rate was at 20.9 per 100,000 in 2017, compared to a national rate of 13.4 per 100,000.

Digging down further reveals other disturbing trends: Suicide is the leading cause of death among youths and young adults ages 10 to 24, and the seventh-leading cause of death for all Coloradans.

There are many ways to parse the statistics: Men are far more likely to die by suicide than women. Nearly 90 percent of suicide victims are under the influence of one or more drugs at the time of death. Certain trades have higher rates of suicide, including construction workers and emergency first responders.

Resilience and recovery

Looking at the death rates, however, paints a poor picture of those who experience suicidal ideation, Brummett said.

“For every one suicide, there are hundreds who have been there and moved past it,” Brummett said. “There is recovery happening every day. The stories of hope and resilience aren’t those getting told, but those are the ones we need to hear.”

Creating more of those stories is the goal of the Zero Suicide Model, a program that seeks to spread suicide prevention and intervention training throughout a person’s support network, said Linda Newell, a former state senator who authored legislation that implemented the program.

“We were finding that there were missed opportunities for intervention,” said Littleton resident Newell. “A quarter of the people who complete suicide end up in front of their primary care doctor within a month before they do it, but there was no talk about suicide. The myth that talking about it will encourage someone to do it doesn’t hold true — just the opposite.”

The program holds Zero Suicide Academies, building the skills of doctors, first responders, counselors, therapists and faith leaders to learn how to broach the subject with people, and how to respond and steer them to resources.

Men and guns

Other programs developed or overseen by the Office of Suicide Prevention work to target specific aspects of the state suicide rate. Nearly four times more men die by suicide than women, for instance, spurring the creation of Man Therapy, a website geared toward reaching men in crisis.

“That higher rate has a lot of causes,” Brummett said. “It’s about the pressures on a man — what it means to be masculine. Men are less likely to seek out and receive any type of mental health service. We have to meet them where they are rather than waiting on them to knock on the door of mental health services.”

Other initiatives address methods of suicide. The Colorado Gun Shop Project, for example, seeks to engage what Brummett called “the firearm community” to spread prevention tactics — mainly encouraging friends and family to remove access to guns from people who are suicidal.

The program, which began in New Hampshire, addresses the fact that guns are the most common method of suicide in Colorado, and that nearly 80 percent of gun deaths in the state are suicides.

“Owning a firearm doesn’t make you suicidal,” Brummett said. “But if you have access to a gun in a time of crisis, you’re more likely to die. You won’t get a second chance to move into that period of recovery.”

Finding answers to why

Why does Colorado have such a high rate of suicide, and why, in the face of a slew of comprehensive efforts aimed at addressing suicide, don’t the numbers come down?

The answers are complex, Brummett said.

“We have a fierce, independent spirit in the West,” Brummett said. “It’s fantastic for blazing trails and pushing the limits, but it can be troublesome when we need help. We’ve also got a lot of rural areas, which can lead to isolation from neighbors and mental health care. Also, quite frankly, we have higher rates of gun ownership.”

As far as bringing down the numbers, Brummett said she’d love to be able to implement the office’s programs universally across the state, as opposed to a piecemeal fashion limited by funds and resources.

Looking ahead, Brummett said she hopes to keep working on more of those connections to other areas of community health and wellness.

“Drug abuse,” Brummett said. “Bullying prevention. Child maltreatment prevention. Economic stability. Addressing sexual and domestic violence. Suicide doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

“It’s not an easy topic to talk about, but we’re hoping to give people a roadmap to recovery.”

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