September and the end of summer has always given me a feeling of renewed energy in my work. Maybe it is the memories of starting a new school year or getting to buy fresh new school supplies. As we prepare to begin a new season, I am renewed in my energy and calling in the work we do at the Colorado Rural Health Center. As CEO of the Colorado Rural Health Center and as someone who has dedicated my career to patient care, one of the most gratifying parts of my job is visiting our rural hospitals and clinics, meeting with providers and rural community members. With that though, I am often in too many meeting or learn of too many barriers to dealing with the pain and crises our communities, providers and facilities face.
September is National Suicide Awareness Month. While so many families are starting a new school year, far too many families are facing mental health crisis or, even worse an unimaginable loss. Colorado consistently has one of the highest suicide rate in the nation, and according to the Colorado Health Foundation, that number is climbing.
The Colorado Health Foundation also reported that in 2015, 478,000 Coloradans reported struggling with mental illness – and that just represents the number of people who reported it – not those who are trying to cope in silence. As a healthcare community, we are hearing more and more about the importance of how providers, communities and families treat mental illness. I am encouraged by the shift in dialogue and, while there is still a heavy cloud of stigma around mental illness, I believe that we are moving in the right direction – to lift that cloud and bring the reality of mental illness and suicide into the light.
While mental illness and suicide does not discriminate based on age, gender, background, socioeconomic status, our rural population faces unique barriers to the mental health care that is needed. Here are the facts: the suicide rate among rural men is significantly higher than in urban areas. The suicide rate among rural women is quickly approaching that same high rate. Colorado ranks low for funding mental health services. We must do more to open the dialogue and push our policymakers to provide funding to address this issue.
According to a report by the Colorado Trust, suicide risk in Colorado is strongly correlated with depression, other mental disorders and most notably, substance abuse. Additionally, military veterans, the elderly and minority individuals are at a particularly high risk. While these correlations are not necessarily surprising, these factors combined with limited services, isolation in rural areas and a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” Colorado ethic can help us identify the disproportionately high suicide rate in rural areas. Recently, a group of mental health advocates from Healthier Colorado walked from Canon City to Pueblo to highlight the distance many must travel to receive mental healthcare. You can see that story here.
Organizations like Civilians for Veterans Campaign, Voz y Corazón, Northern Colorado Health Alliance, and many others are working to reach Coloradans in their communities and working with the often nebulous and helpless feelings for those trying to help friends, families and patients suffering from mental illness.
The Colorado Rural Health Center will continue to make this issue a priority and will continue the conversation. At our upcoming Annual Rural Health Conference on October 20th, Hon. Andrew Romanoff, CEO of Mental Health Colorado is hosting a general session to address suicide and mental illness in rural areas in Colorado.
As we begin a new season, let’s all commit to continue our work to make sure every Coloradan has access to quality healthcare – even if it is the kind of care for the kind of illnesses that are difficult to see.
Below are some resources for our Rural Colorado Communities: