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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Suicide: a winnable battle

Aug 30, 2017 10:59AM ● By Diana Barnett

When Gretchen McGeeney learned that her son had died, she was devastated. More than a year before, Landon had been declared missing in California, where he had been attending college. The news came as a shock, but brought closure. Now the family had to deal with the knowledge that their son had taken his own life.

Gretchen found healing in music, writing poetry and reading books about suicide.

“I wanted more information on the grief process,” she said. “Reading reinforced that what I was feeling was part of that process and that I wasn’t going crazy.”

She also became involved with the local HEARTBEAT chapter, a grief support organization for survivors, and currently serves as a contact for that organization.

The force behind HEARTBEAT

Margaret Palo lost a son to suicide in 1978. Along with her husband, Jim, and other bereaved parents, she led the chartering effort for the local Compassionate Friends chapter in 1980. She set it up so that individuals living on the Western Slope who had lost a child from any cause had the support they needed.

“We were fortunate to have a lot of caring friends and relatives, plus a church family who reached out to us with a lot of compassion, but we felt very isolated in dealing with our grief and the impact it was having on our immediate family members,” Palo said.

It soon became apparent, due to an increased number of youth suicides in the Grand Valley, that more specialized support was necessary. In 1992, Palo again spearheaded the founding of a support organization—the Grand Junction chapter of HEARTBEAT.

“HEARTBEAT supports anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide,” she said.

A winnable battle

When it comes to state suicide rates, Colorado ranks in the top 10. It’s an ongoing issue for Mesa County in particular—the annual report from the Mesa County Coroner’s Office lists the 2016 suicide rate in Mesa County as 32.3 per 100,000 people. That’s greater than the statewide rate (20.3 per 100,000), and nearly double the U.S. rate (13.26 per 100,000).

The 2015-2017 Community Needs Assessment, conducted by the county Department of Health, identifies suicide as a “winnable battle” in Mesa County. The assessment found that males commit suicide at a higher rate than females, but females attempt suicide three times more than males. By age range, the highest rate of completed suicides was in males in the 30-39 age bracket, with 50-59 and 60-69 next. Males use more lethal means like firearms or hanging; females generally choose drugs.

A common denominator was the presence of alcohol and/or drugs in the system at the time of death. Most of those who tested negative for drugs or alcohol were either diagnosed with a mental health disease or a terminal illness.

Individuals who attempt or complete suicide are hurting. They have difficulty reaching out for help and don’t know what to do. Their perception of self and reality is often skewed.

Men especially have a difficult time. Men have a harder time expressing feelings, and they often don’t. They view their difficulties as their problem and they don’t want to burden anyone else.

“Maybe that is why we lose so many men to suicide,” McGeeney said. “Where do they turn with grief and feelings they don’t know what to do with?”

In a crisis—24/7 assistance

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Mind Springs Crisis Line (local): 888-207-4004
  • Colorado Crisis Services (statewide): 844-493-8255, or text “TALK” to 38255
  • Emergency responders: 911. Ask specifically for responders trained in suicide prevention.

Local resources

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness, Western Slope: 462-3989,
  • HEARTBEAT: 985-4551, [email protected]
  • The Compassionate Friends (support for families who have lost a child): 241-0459 and 434-3822
  • HopeWest grief counseling: 241-2212
  • Grand Junction Vet Center: 245-4156, 2472 Patterson Road, Unit 16
  • Mind Springs peer services: 241-6023,
Warning signs

Individuals contemplating taking their life often exhibit warning signs including depression, drug and alcohol abuse, mood swings, talking about suicide or being a burden to others, too little or too much sleep, feeling hopeless, being withdrawn, giving away important possessions, loss of interest in activities, and feeling isolated or trapped. Because many individuals are able to mask their feelings, however, signs are not always apparent.

The positive news is there is a lot of support to help individuals who are grieving for a lost friend or family member, or feel at risk to consider suicide themselves.

After losing a good friend and her daughter to suicide, Erica Kitzman wanted to find a way to help prevent further deaths by suicide in the area.

Working in conjunction with the Mind Springs peer program, she started Alternatives to Suicide, which meets regularly, with walk-ins welcome.

“People who have suicidal thoughts or have attempted suicide need to have a safe setting where they can provide positive support to one another,” Kitzman said.

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