Rocky Mountain Low: Does Altitude Affect Suicide?
The risk of suicide increases at a higher altitude, according to a study from the University of Utah. “Instantly, I knew something was exceptionally wrong, and she just said to me three very simple words: ‘He did it,'” said Lauren Stout, whose brother committed suicide. Her brother lived in high altitudes in Utah and Montana. One day it became too much for him and he ended his life. “The world really does not get, they think it’s one flavor of person, or one look, or one type,” she said.
Did high altitude play a factor? Dr. Douglas Gray, a U. of U. psychology professor, said that at altitude, brain chemistry changes and it can cause treatment resistant depression that does not respond to medication. Dr. Gray and Perry Renshaw, M.D., Ph.D., MBA, professor of psychiatry at the U. School of Medicine and an investigator with Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative at the U. of U. have been looking for a link between high altitude and high suicide rates. “The Rocky Mountain states still have terribly high suicide rates,” said Dr. Gray. He said that when you compare suicide rates in Rocky Mountain states to other regions, the difference is very clear. “It’s not just two percent,” he said. “It’s much higher, 20 or 30 percent.”
In the Sept. 15, 2010, online edition of the American Journal of Psychiatry, Renshaw and colleagues report that the risk for suicide increases by nearly one-third at an altitude of 2,000 meters, or approximately 6,500 feet above sea level.
The Western states have some of the highest average elevations in the nation and, according to data derived from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), also the highest suicide rates. In 2006, the latest year for which national data was available, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oregon accounted for nine of the 10 highest suicide rates in the country. Alaska also was in the top 10 in suicide rates. Utah’s suicide rate was 10th highest in 2006; Nevada had the nation’s highest rate.
Support for the theory of connection between high altitude and high suicide rates continued to mount but the doctors at the U. of U. remind us that there is no absolute answer when it comes to mental health or suicide. The answer is more research.
Stout said that her view is that you need to take the stigma away from the survivors. “Suicide is not contagious,” she said. “If you are considering suicide, you are permanently imprinting your survivors with what is considered to be a contagious disease, a stigma.
“Grief is a living thing,” she said. “It changes on you. It bites, it whispers, it kicks, it hugs, it’s just a little ghost that is on your back all the time, and you never know when it’s going to affect you and get you.”
For people interested in getting involved, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, AFSP.org, holds walks and other events. What do you think of all this? Leave us your comment below.