March 22, 2008

Springs Suicide Rate is No. 2 Among 54 Major U.S. Cities

By Brian Newsome, The Gazette, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Mar. 22--No one knows why, but more Colorado Springs residents kill themselves than do residents in all other major U.S. cities but one.

Only Las Vegas has a higher suicide rate among the top 54 urban areas in the U.S., according to a 2007 report by the National Association of County & City Health Officials. And while Las Vegas and the cities with the third- and fourth-highest suicide rates have the country's highest death rates overall, Colorado Springs is one of the lowest in that category.

The frequency with which people take their own life here is grim recognition for a place more accustomed to rankings about being one of the best cities to live in or home to the fittest people.

Only speculation and hunches seem to get at why suicides are so high.

Area experts suspect the city's unusually high number of suicides might come from a prevalent up-by-the-bootstraps mentality that makes people shy away from turning to help in a time of need. Or, for a community where people often come and go, maybe the depressed simply don't have a watchful neighbor or family member looking after them. Other likely culprits: a high rate of substance abuse, reasonably easy access to firearms, a lack of education about the topic and barriers to getting mental health care.

The ranking comes from the 2007 Big Cities Inventory: The Health of Urban America. This edition was the first time Colorado Springs' population was big enough for the city to be included. These urban areas represented 16 percent of the national population in the 2000 Census, according to the report.

In 2004, the year measured in the report, 121 people died by suicide in El Paso County, according to the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment. That number dropped to 69 in 2006, but it's too early to tell whether the decrease is the beginning of a trend -- and it doesn't likely affect the city's standing nationally, said Dr. Bernadette Albanese, the county's medical director who was also part of the report's national editorial board.

"I think it's a very significant public health issue," she said about Colorado Springs' ranking, adding that suicide is the seventh-leading cause of death in El Paso County.

The report says about 26 of every 100,000 people killed themselves in 2004 in Colorado Springs. That compared with nearly 35 in Las Vegas, 25 in Tucson, Ariz., and nearly 23 in Sacramento, Calif. Those cities also have the top three highest overall mortality rates, while Colorado Springs is No. 33 in that category.

In dozens of other health categories, Colorado Springs appears to be one of the healthier cities. It ranked No. 36 for overall cancer mortality and No. 31 for pneumonia and flu deaths. It was far from the top in other categories including homicides and death from car crashes and AIDS.

The latest study came as no surprise to area suicide experts, who say Colorado has long ranked high in state-to-state comparisons. And El Paso County's rate is often higher than the rest of the state's. Colorado also ranks high in alcohol and substance abuse, a common factor in suicides.

Basic underlying factors in suicidal behavior are well-established: isolation, untreated depression and alcohol and drug abuse.

Less certain is why those seem to come in larger doses locally.

Davida Hoffman is a social worker and director of the Child and Family Network for Pikes Peak Mental Health. Teens with suicidal tendencies are a regular part of her caseload.

"This is a very mobile community; people come and go here very frequently," she said. "When you don't have the family to help you when times get tough ... most people don't turn to professionals, they turn to their family."

Susan Golden, a co-founder and consultant for the Suicide Prevention Partnership of the Pikes Peak Region, said that isolation is often compounded by an independent mentality that goes with life in the West, one that believes people can simply pull themselves or their friends out of clinical depression.

And there's a stigma that comes with depression, said LaRita Archibald, who also helped start the partnership and founded a survivors' support group, Heartbeat for Surivors.

"If your family member has cancer there's no embarrassment in that, but some people feel a mental illness is something to be embarrassed (about)," she said.

Ali Nagel, injury and violence prevention program specialist for the health department, runs the SAFE Teen program, an education campaign offered to local schools. She said teenagers, one of the highest risk age groups for suicide, don't like to turn to adults -- especially a mental-health professional.

For Archibald, whose son committed suicide in 1978 at the age of 24, why the city's suicide rate is so high is not the question. It's how do you bring it down.

"We know it's high, so what we focus on is trying to keep people alive," she said. "People don't have to die this way."

The health department, nonprofits and Pikes Peak Mental Health are trying to spread that idea so people might distinguish between a bad day or undiagnosed depression.

Golden characterized the Big Cities ranking as a "dubious distinction." At the same time, it's one she and others hope will bring public awareness to a problem that often exists in the shadows before becoming a statistic.

Not recognizing it as a problem, said Nagel, is a problem.

CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0198 or [email protected]


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