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The regularly scheduled September 12 meeting of the Chaffee Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) was short on business and long on discussion surrounding the BoCC’s proclamation that September is Suicide Prevention Month in Chaffee County.

Solvista Health CEO Brian Turner was on hand to present the need for this awareness campaign not just in Colorado, but in this county. While Solvista Health is addressing mental health for this county (and the other counties it serves), Colorado is among the highest in the country for rates of suicide, and the U.S. is a global leader in suicide deaths,” said Turner.

“The high country counties have higher suicide rates. That means these small communities are among the highest in the world,” he added. “We know prevention is possible … the treatment for mental health and substance abuse works, but it takes entire communities to work on this.”

Turner and Solvista Health Resource Assessment Center staffer Jill Anderson explained that next Friday, September 22, Solvista has planned, a recognition event featuring an independent film at the SteamPlant to lead a wider outreach to the community about suicide awareness and prevention. The event includes a panel discussion, and Commissioner P.T. Wood will be on the panel.

Per the proclamation, which was passed unanimously by the BoCC, there is one death every 11 minutes from suicide; deaths that could be prevented. The commissioners had several questions about why the suicide rates are higher here in the high country.

“I’m convinced it is the rural areas’ isolation, and lack of resources can drive poor mental health. When people don’t have access, this leads to a sense of hopelessness … that’s what it boils down to,” said Turner. “We have a lot of folks who are just struggling; who don’t have a lot of social capital in their lives. We’ve done a lot to build up those resources; even things such as housing access add to stability.” He added that Solvista Health is focusing on youth, on veterans, and on marginalized populations. “In Lake County, we have a large Spanish-speaking population. There is a lot of positive prevention.”

“In addition to being one of the highest suicide areas in the world, we are also known as one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world,” mused Commissioner Greg Felt. “I wonder if there are people struggling here  who say ‘If I can’t be happy here, there is nowhere else to go?’  I’ve read a few articles recently that there is something to that thinking — ‘it’s the end of the road, everything else from here is downhill.’  I’m not sure where to go with that, but it might be something to acknowledge.”

Commissioner Keith Baker noted that “… as a region the West has a problem and within that the Mountain West has more isolation, despair, lack of opportunity for jobs. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, we started to be concerned about general depths of despair, alcoholism, drug use,  and isolation. We deeply appreciate Solvista’s work, and our relationship. We know that other parts of the state don’t have the quality that we have. The Regional Assessment Center is a big lift.”

He mentioned that recent reports indicate that Colorado’s Red Flag Law (also known as the extreme risk protection law) has had a more positive impact than was first thought.

Turner noted that when it comes to suicide, the leading mechanism for suicide is firearms.  He added that while Solvista Health supports gun rights and understands the retail gun sales industry exists, that “There are reasonable steps [we could take] but we want to do that in partnership with law enforcement.”