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Is Colorado's gun culture responsible for state's awful new suicide record?

Update: On August 19, we noted that suicide statistics in Colorado had set an awful new record, with the rate registering its highest number ever; see our previous coverage below.

Drilling down with the help of Jarrod Hindman, the state's director of suicide prevention, reveals details behind the dire news. For instance, guns are used in about half of Colorado suicides, with men much more likely to choose this method. Does that suggest our gun culture is partly to blame for the stat rise?

Hindman can't definitively pin the increase on our state's love affair with guns or any other single factor. But he does point to a couple of important things to consider.

"If you look at the states with the highest suicide rates, all of them are here in the Rocky Mountain West, from Montana all the way to New Mexico," he allows.

Why? "Geography is part of it," he believes. "These states have pretty vast, rural geography, and what typically comes with that is a shortage of mental-health providers and services.

"Another theory about the Western U.S. is that we really embrace the mentality of rugged individualism," he continues. "That can be great in many instances. But when you're talking about suicide and mental health, you can't just bootstrap your way through it. This notion that you solve your problems on your own and don't ask for help gets in the way sometimes, particularly for the demographic that's most likely to commit suicide" -- working-age men between the ages of 25 and 64.

Jarrod Hindman.
Jarrod Hindman.

That's borne out by the previously released CDPHE suicide figures, which showed a rate of 19.7 "completed suicides" per 100,000 people -- a 15.8 percent increase since 2011. Of the 1,053 people who took their own lives in Colorado last year, 810 of them were men. And they definitely gravitated toward two methods.

"Usually around 50 percent of our suicide deaths are firearms-related," Hindman reports, "and males tend to use firearms or suffocation in their suicide events."

Are Colorado gun owners likelier than others to commit suicide? In addressing that question, Hindman cites a 2008 Harvard study that sought to link gun ownership to suicide rates. Although researchers found there was a definite correlation, Hindman says "Colorado wasn't in the top third of those states. It was in the second third -- so certainly a culture in the top half of firearm ownership. And that plays into it."

Mental health resources are also key, Hindman feels. "In this year's budget, $18 million was set aside for mental health crisis service, and that's a good change," he says. "We're implementing those changes now, trying to close the gap between folks who need services and those who provide those services. But I would argue that if every single Coloradan had access to quality mental-health services, there's a percentage of the population that wouldn't access them. That's why we have to work on both ends of things -- increasing access to services and getting people to think about their own wellness and recognize that mental health is just as important as physical health. In fact, they're one and the same."

ManTherapy.org, a website that uses humor in an effort to reach men who may be reluctant to seek help from other, more traditional sources, is a focus of Colorado's outreach efforts. The site, featured in our original coverage below, has attracted 285,000 visitors over its first year of operation from Colorado and all over the world. Yet whether it's achieving the goal of directing suicidal males to assistance before they can harm themselves remains unclear. "We just need more data," Hindman concedes. "It will take time to learn if men are seeking mental health or primary care services more than they have been, and to see if it has any impact on the suicide rates. But we're building in tools to try to figure that out."

Meanwhile, news of increasing suicide rates can be problematic for those who are already vulnerable. With that in mind, Hindman encourages "anyone who's in a crisis, or anyone who's worried about someone" to dial the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

"Our biggest message," he adds, "is, 'There's hope and there's help.' It's just a matter of making the connections and getting people linked to life-saving resources."

Continue for our previous coverage about Colorado's record-setting suicide rates, including photos and a ManTherapy.org video.  

Original post, 9:50 a.m. August 19: While Colorado regularly excels in polls meant to determine the happiest state in the country (it finished fifth in a 2011 Gallup survey, for example), the suicide rate here frequently is among the country's highest -- and the news in that respect just got worse.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the 2012 suicide rate just set a new, and very much unwanted, record despite initiatives intended to lower the number, including Man Therapy, a program we spotlighted last year.

According to the CDPHE, 1,053 Coloradans "completed suicide" last year. That represents a rate of 19.7 suicides per 100,000 -- a bigger number than ever registered here, and an extremely unpleasant 15.8 percent increase over 2011.

"Far too many Coloradans struggle with thoughts of suicide, and far too many die when they are unable to manage debilitating mental, emotional or physical pain," said Jarrod Hindman, manager of the CDPHE's Office of Suicide Prevention, in a statement accompanying the facts and figures.

Jarrod Hindman.
Jarrod Hindman.

The data actually shows some minor improvement in a couple of categories: The number of suicide deaths for those aged fifteen to nineteen actually went down from 43 to 41 last year, and suicide deaths by those 75 and older decreased by one, from 54 to 53.

But that's about it for the good news. For Coloradans aged twenty to 64, the suicide rate went up from 23.4 per 100,000 adults -- already a shocking percentage -- to 27.3. And while men continue to take their own lives with far greater frequency than do women -- they accounted for 810 of the 1,053 to die by suicide last year -- the rate at which women are dying by their own hand is keeping pace. The CDPHE reports that 243 women killed themselves in 2012, as compared to 207 in 2011 -- an 18 percent increase.

The totals are even more distressing because, as Hindman notes in his statement, "suicide can be prevented. There are resources available for individuals and families in crisis, and many who struggle with suicidal thoughts go on to lead hopeful, happy and productive lives."

The CDPHE specifically mentions ManTherapy.org as a showing promise. The website uses offbeat humor, as delivered by the fictional Dr. Rich Mahogany, in an effort to help men come up with ways to deal with depression and seek help.

The site has been active for just over a year -- too small a time span to determine its effectiveness. But there's no doubt about the size of the problem. In 2010, the most recent year highlighted by Suicidology.org, Colorado was eighth highest among the fifty states when it came to suicide.

Here's a ManTherapy.org video.

More from our News archive: "Videos: ManTherapy.org uses wacky humor to help dudes fight depression."


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