Five people have taken their own lives in the span of about a month in the mostly rural counties of Moffat and Routt, alarming mental health workers who worry the deaths are part of the pandemic aftermath.
The latest suicide in Steamboat Springs, that of a well-known and beloved firefighter EMT, was the fifth in Routt County this year, already more suicide deaths than in all of 2019. The firefighter’s death was the third suicide in the northwest Colorado county since coronavirus struck in March, and follows the death of a long-time Steamboat psychologist who shot himself in his vehicle outside the police station after penning a note mentioning the stress of the pandemic.
“We’ve had a rough few weeks,” said Mindy Marriott, who runs a local suicide prevention group called Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide.
The stresses of the pandemic — not only the health crisis and isolation but the economy and school closures — have exacerbated mental health issues in the area, Marriott said.
“It has created chaos in many people’s lives who don’t even suffer from a behavioral health issue,” she said. “When you look at people who were already struggling, it just adds fuel to fire.”
In neighboring Moffat County, west along U.S. 40 and the Yampa River, four people have died by suicide since mid-August.
That’s nine suicides this year in the two counties that for a decade have worked to break down the stigma of mental illness and expand prevention networks. The hard work was paying off, prevention workers said, and in recent years, the number of suicides was declining in Routt County.
Then came 2020.
Suicide prevention coordinators in both counties said people calling their help line and walking through their doors are talking about coronavirus, how it has upended their lives and added to their financial struggles.
The virus itself is not wreaking much havoc in Moffat County. In the past six months, the county has had 38 confirmed cases of coronavirus and one death.
But the “fallout of COVID” is palpable, said Meghan Francone, director of the crisis services center Open Hearts Advocates in Moffat County.
“We’re seeing the mental health fallout portion of that now as this stress has turned into toxic stress,” she said. “It changes the way our brains work. You can see the effects of toxic stress on MRIs.”
Despite increased awareness about suicide, the county still lacks enough resources to help folks dealing with mental illness, Francone said. Right now, though, she’s worried that people who are suffering are not reaching out for help, another long-lasting effect of the pandemic that has isolated people from their social circles and caused them to put off all kinds of medical appointments.
Visits to the crisis services center are down, but Francone does not believe it’s “because there is a reduction in the number of people contemplating suicide.” Open Hearts has safehouses in Moffat County where people can come for help. “We are having an increase in suicides and people are not reaching out,” she said. “We have the deaths to show it.”
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