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County suicide rate higher than expected; looking for solutions

“This is a critical issue”

By Kristy Acuff

The Gunnison County Board of Health continues to grapple with higher than expected suicide rates in Gunnison County, according to a report presented to the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners.

“In 2017 we had eight suicide deaths and 77 total attempts that we know of in Gunnison County,” said public health officer Dr. John Tarr. “That is significantly higher than we would expect, given our population size.”

The suicide victims were all males over 30 and, according to the coroner’s report, 50 percent were under the influence of alcohol and 38 percent had antidepressants in their systems, reported Tarr.

Gunnison Valley Health’s emergency department saw 77 attempted suicide patients ranging in age from 10 to 85 and split evenly between males and females. Fifty-three percent of the suicide attempt patients were under 20 years old.

“Fortunately, Western State Colorado University is one of six schools of higher education that is implementing ‘Sources of Strength,’ a suicide prevention program for its undergraduates,” reported Tarr. “That program has already been implemented in the middle and high schools in Gunnison.”

“This is a critical issue for all three of us on the commission,” said John Messner. “What can we do to make this improve?”

“It’s difficult because many of the people we need to reach are, by nature, isolating themselves. And the question is how do we reach those over-30-year-old males who are out of our loop?” said Tarr. “One idea is train community members like bartenders and hairdressers and barbers so they know what to do when they encounter someone in a crisis. What to do when it’s closing time and they have a inebriated customer who is crying in his beer and seems to have no support. There is a relatively easy training called ‘QPR’ that takes about an hour. And maybe if we could outreach and train community members it could have an impact.”

“What about the Center for Mental Health? Walk me through the process. Suppose I am drunk and despondent and I make the call to the center. What happens then?” asked Messner.

“You would speak to a trained staff member who assesses the risk you pose to yourself or others and then they come up with a plan, and only when they deem it safe do they hang up the phone,” said Joni Reynolds, Gunnison County director of health and human services.

“One possible outcome would be to utilize the comfort room at the hospital,” said Tarr. “It is a safe room, a sanctuary for people who are in crisis but who do not need to be involuntarily committed to a hospital. The majority of people in mental health crisis need sanctuary and the hospital has this room set aside. It would only work for those people who are voluntarily willing to stay there. It is not a locked, secure facility.”

According to Gunnison Valley Health marketing director, Kylie Murgatroyd, “The comfort room offers respite care for patients who require a temporary place to stay. It is not a mental health room. It is available for patients who may be experiencing an acute crisis and require a safe environment until alternative care can be found.”

For anyone in crisis, contact the Center for Mental Health at (970) 252-6220, or Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255, 24 hours a day.

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