This is the fourth and final installment in a four-part, in-depth series by Sky-Hi News about mental health in Grand County. Throughout this series, which will be in print and on our website every Friday throughout April, you will meet several local people who struggle with mental health issues, both personally and professionally. We share their stories and how they connect to the systemic issues facing local mental health. Their stories are woven together through all four parts, giving mental health in Grand County a visible face while examining the issues and what’s being done to address them.
STORY BY McKenna Harford, Lance Maggart and Bryce Martin
As vacationers enjoyed the warm summer weather and bright Rocky Mountain sunshine late last July, Reg Rhodes was suffering.
The 47-year-old Grand Lake resident had a history of chronic clinical depression. His outlook on life wasn’t improving.
When he didn’t show up to work one day, as his close friend and boss Joe Kelley recalled, the team at Power World in Granby grew nervous. That wasn’t like him, according to Kelley.
“We knew something was wrong when he didn’t show up,” he said.
Rhodes’s long experience with depression was well known by those who knew him, especially by Kelley. Though, just days earlier, Rhodes was in good spirits, excitedly showing Kelley some unknown bicycle trails around the county and buying pizza for everybody at work. He was simply in a “really good mood.”
On July 29, 2018, it was made apparent why Rhodes hadn’t shown up to work. He had taken his own life.
He was found during a welfare check inside his Grand Lake home, with his beloved canine companion, named Wrangler, still by his side.
“I don’t know how to describe it, nor did I know what to do that day,” Kelley admitted.
It was a sudden jolt to Kelley and the Power World family, where Rhodes was a master mechanic. Dealing with the loss of a friend was difficult. Kelley said he experienced a cycle of continual grief then anger.
No one at Power World realized, at the time, that Rhodes’s suddenly happy demeanor could have been an indication of his future suicide. They were just relieved that their good friend was experiencing some sort of contentment or relief from his anguish.
In hindsight, Kelley said he believes that his seemingly improved mental state was because Rhodes had decided on a plan to finally end his suffering.
“He didn’t see his own value,” Kelley remembered. “He thought of himself as worthless.”
Reg Rhodes poses for a photo with his pet dog, Wrangler. Rhodes took his own life in July 2018.
The amount of suicides each year in Grand County has been trending upwards for the past decade. Data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shows the county had the highest suicide rate of all major resort communities in Colorado, when considering suicide deaths from 2004 to 2017. The actual number of suicide deaths may seem relatively small, due to the county’s smaller overall population, but the deaths are not insignificant. Each suicide death has a profound impact on the county’s suicide rate.
Grand County’s suicide rate in 2018 was close to 40 deaths per 100,000 citizens; nearly three times the national average of 14 per 100,000 citizens.
From 2007 through 2018, there were a total of 35 suicides in the county. Last year, the county had six instances in which an individual ended his or her life.
Looking at trends in the county shows that men die by suicide at a far higher rate than women. Since 2011, a total of 24 men have taken their lives compared to six women and one transgender woman. Their ages spanned from the young teens to late 70s.
Data shown above shows the average suicide rate, from 2004 to 2017, for counties in Colorado. According to the map, Grand County had the highest suicide rate for major resort communities in the state. | Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
An examination of resort communities in the Rocky Mountain west also shows higher-than-average suicide rates.
Routt County, home to the Steamboat ski resort, had a suicide rate, from 2004 to 2017, of 20.9 suicides per 100,000 people. To the south, Summit County had a rate of 15.9 and, further west, Eagle County — with the lowest suicide rate among resort communities — had a rate of 12.1.
Resort communities not along the I-70 mountain corridor had slightly lower suicide rates. In San Miguel County, where Telluride ski resort is located, the rate was 18 per 100,000, from 2004 to 2017. East of the Continental Divide, Boulder County, where Eldora ski resort is located, had a rate of 17.
Like other resort markets in the state, one of the unique aspects to suicide statistics in Grand County is related to a phenomenon sometimes referred to as suicide tourism.
Suicide tourism is the practice of traveling to a location away from home to commit suicide, often occurring at famous landmarks, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, or in beautiful outdoor environments like Grand County.
Since 2007, one-fifth of the county’s suicides have been completed by non-residents.
Grand County Coroner Brenda Bock recalled this phenomenon when she came upon a note, years ago, left by a person who had taken their own life inside the county. The note indicated that they had come to “beautiful Colorado because it was closer to God.”
Based upon her investigations, Bock confirmed that many individuals who come to Grand County to complete suicide want to die in a place of beauty.
Aside from its picturesque setting, determining why there is a higher-than-average suicide rate in Grand County is difficult as suicide can occur for a myriad of reasons.
There are, however, at least ways to explain how the area is more susceptible.
Scholars and public health professionals have pointed to numerous contributing factors, from troubled local economies to the isolation that can sometimes accompany the rural settings of the west. Other factors include the prevalence of veterans, who die by suicide at a rate roughly twice as often as the general public, and the relatively high amount of firearm ownership.
There is one surprising factor, however, that is believed to correlate closely with suicide: elevation.
A study published March 2018 in the “Harvard Review of Psychiatry” titled “Living High and Feeling Low: Altitude, Suicide and Depression,” authored by doctors Brent Kious, Douglas Kondo and Perry Renshaw, found that higher elevation may be linked to increased rates of suicide.
The researchers analyzed 12 studies, most of which reported that high-altitude areas in the United States had increased rates of depression and suicide.
Suicide rates increased dramatically at altitudes between about 2,000 and 3,000 feet, according to the study. On average, and adjusted for population distribution, suicide rates were found to be 17.7 at high altitude, 11.9 at middle and 4.8 at low altitude for every 100,000 people.
The average altitude of Grand County’s six major towns is 8,165 feet.
Studies from other countries, though not all, have also reported increased suicide rates at higher altitudes.
The study’s researchers suggested the reason higher altitude leads to greater suicide rates might be tied to chronic hypobaric hypoxia, which is low blood oxygen levels related to atmospheric pressure. That, according to the study, could negatively alter serotonin metabolism — which, in basic terms, contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness —and brain bioenergetics.