Is altitude causing suicide in the West?

Researchers find that high elevations may affect our emotions in both good and bad ways

 

The West’s mountain towns, from Jackson to Taos, Silverton to Park City, Truckee to Ketchum, tend to float to the top of what I’ll call Listicles of Happiness: Those inane rankings of the “best towns” in the nation, whether it’s the best small towns, the best ski towns or, a recent favorite to hate, “20 Colorado Mountain Towns That Are Paradise in Winter,” the writers of which have some fetish for stoplights, or the lack thereof. Judging from these lists, we mountain townies are a joyous bunch, working high-paying jobs that not only allow us to follow our passion, but also to go fly fishing on our lunch break, mountain bike after that (without stoplights to slow us down!), and then, fueled by a runner’s high, party long into the night.

But there’s another set of lists, too, that aren’t published by the usual magazines or websites, but on which those very same mountain towns and states tend to rank highly: The Lists of Misery. Western states are among the national leaders in alcohol abuse and depression rates, and rank low for mental health. A few days ago, the Centers for Disease Control — the usual compilers of the Lists of Misery — put out a report on alcohol-related poisoning fatalities. The Interior West had the highest rates, by far. Then there’s the ultimate List of Misery, suicide rates, which the Interior West has long topped, earning the Rocky Mountain states the morbid moniker of The Suicide Belt.

Suicide rates are far higher in the Interior West than in the rest of the nation.

The root causes of this mountain misery have remained a mystery. Maybe we kill ourselves at a higher rate because we have so many guns at our disposal, and maybe we reach that extreme of misery because we are physically and emotionally isolated: We not only live further apart from one another, but our independent Western spirit prevents us from seeking help and support. Maybe the notion of driving over mountain passes for mental health care is too daunting.

But a group of researchers think they may have found the reason the mountain states top not only the Lists of Misery, but maybe also the Listicles of Happiness: high altitude. Two studies, each by an overlapping group of scientists looking into the matter, were published back in 2010 and 2011. The findings didn’t get a lot of play at the time. But after CDC released its latest data, for 2012, showing that the suicide rate has been increasing nationwide, particularly in Western states like Utah and Colorado, and after an article on the altitude findings was published at Science.Mic in November, the theory attracted more attention.

In the paper “Positive Association between Altitude and Suicide in 2584 U.S. Counties” published in 2011 in High Altitude Medicine and Biology, the authors looked at every county in the U.S., and found a strong positive correlation between the average altitude of the county and the suicide rate. Counties that lie below 2,000 feet above sea level had an overall suicide rate that was about half that of counties lying between 4,000 and 5,000 feet in altitude. Counties above 9,000 feet had the highest suicide rate. And so on. This in spite of the fact that high altitude counties generally have a lower mortality rate from all other causes. The authors note:

Prior reports of increased suicides in the U.S. Mountain Region have prompted speculation that the excess is owing to greater access to firearms, increased isolation, or reduced income. Even after controlling for these variables in our analysis, the positive correlation between altitude and suicide still exists, which suggests that the increased suicide rate in the regions with greatest altitude, such as the Mountain Region, may be owing to, at least in part, its altitude per se.

How could altitude lead someone to end their own life? Possibly through hypoxia, or lack of adequate oxygen to the brain, the phenomenon that causes us to get dizzy, or drunk faster, at high altitude. “Altitude is a well-known cause of hypoxia,” the authors say, “and the greater the elevation, the greater the hypoxia. Chronic hypoxia also is thought to increase mood disturbances, especially in patients with emotional instability.” The authors go on to admit that hypoxia’s effect on mood is complex, and more study is needed.

One of the researchers, at least, has continued that study, and thinks he’s closer to solving the mystery. In the Science.Mic article, writer Theresa Fisher spoke with Utah neuroscientist Perry Renshaw about his findings. Renshaw told her that he believes altitude messes with our bodies’ levels of dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that regulate our sense of happiness. Hypoxia, he says, causes serotonin to go down in our brains (which usually results in depression) and dopamine to increase (which usually creates a sense of euphoria, e.g. “runner’s high”).

Whether this conflicting combination of effects makes us happy or makes us sad depends on the makeup of our brains. Folks with a history of depression are more likely to get more depressed if they move to the mountains, as are women, according to the Science.Mic article. And people who are naturally happy are likely to get downright ecstatic at higher altitudes. And that would explain how so many mountain towns can top both the Listicles of Happiness and the Lists of Misery.

When I first caught wind of the theory a few months ago, it seemed absurd. I’ve lived all but one year of my life between 5,000 and 9,300 feet. Looking back at those times — as well as the year I spent at sea level — I don’t see any correlations between my mental health and the altitude at which I was living. Sure, my sanity often wore a little thin while living in Silverton, Colorado, at 9,300 feet, but then there were many other factors aside from altitude to consider: A tiny populace, psychotic politics, a treacherous drive to the nearest movie theatre and, yeah, I was running the town newspaper, a sure road to mental illness.

Having said all of that, suicide has been a shockingly common cause of death in Silverton since the heydays of mining, and many of its current residents — the ones who aren’t fighting over at Town Hall — can tend to get wrapped up in a sort of hypoxic euphoria. I always thought it was the scenery. Perhaps it’s the altitude.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER RIGHTS/ADJUDICATION BUREAU CHIEF
    Job Overview: Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that Montana's land and water resources provide benefits for present and future...
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz