When iconic writer Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in 2005 at his home near Aspen, Colorado, Rolling Stone filled an entire issue with speculation about why he'd done it. One article by the historian Douglas Brinkley connects his suicide, spiritually, to the 1961 suicide of Ernest Hemingway in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. Now, with the revelation that Coloradans are in greater danger of blowing their brains out than having them smashed in by a car wreck, it might be worth taking a closer look at why people are going to the western United States to shoot themselves.
Suicide, whether by gun or not, is on the rise all over the U.S., according to a fact sheet from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, where I got most of my suicide data. Guns account for 50.6 percent of American suicides. However, Colorado just saw an abrupt 20 percent jump in gun suicides, with 532 in 2012, compared to 457 car crash fatalities.
It's hard to illustrate how unusual this is with the resources available to me and my terrible math brain, but I'll try anyway. Compared to Colorado, where shooting yourself just pulled ahead, the rest of America has a 5.2624 per one hundred thousand rate of suicide by gunshot (which I got by dividing the overall suicide rate by the AFSP's 50.6 percent statistic for gun suicide), and a 10.4 per one hundred thousand rate of car crash fatalities, almost twice the national average for self-inflicted gunshots. Are you convinced this is a problem yet?
Without further study, it's hard to nail down a cause, but the first temptation is to blame Colorado's apparent gun mania. You've got your Columbines (homicidal and suicidal), and your Auroras (strictly homicidal), but Colorado has a gun ownership rate of 34.7 percent. That's high for most places, but around the statistical median for a US state. Colorado is also one of the least NRA-friendly states, having just become one of very few to require background checks for gun purchases in all circumstances. It's worth noting, however, that Colorado's gun purchases have shot up over the course of 2013, but the suicide data are from before this spike, so a connection can't be made there.
After vetoing my gun-ownership reasoning, Colorado kept thwarting me every time I tried to nail down another cause. I thought since unemployment is closely tied to suicide, Colorado might have a struggling economy, but it doesn't. I'd heard that military personnel have a higher-than-average suicide rate, maybe Colorado commits a lot of troops to our wars. It doesn't. The recent rise in suicide shows a dramatic increase in middle-aged people killing themselves. Maybe Colorado's population is aging, I thought. It's the eighth youngest, although since suicide is classically a leading cause of death among young people, this might not be completely irrelevant. I thought maybe Colorado is full of sick, or depressed people. Nope, it rates astonishingly high in measurements of health and wellbeing. It was enough to make me want to write the whole thing off as a fluke, and just move my ass to Colorado.
Then I got clued into a 2010 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry (as reported by USA Today), which tied suicide to elevation above sea level. They studied twenty years of data and found that the mountainous states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oregon all rank among the top 10 in terms of American suicide rates.
They crosschecked their data against suicide rates from other countries using the suicide capital, the very mountainous South Korea as their example, and found that South Koreans living at 6,500 feet above sea level had a 125 percent higher suicide risk.
A few months later, that group refined its study and published a paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry called "Altitude, Gun Ownership, Rural Areas, and Suicide." In that paper, they found, "A significant positive correlation was observed between age-adjusted suicide rate and county elevation," and concluded the following:
"When altitude, gun ownership, and population density are considered as predictor variables for suicide rates on a state basis, altitude appears to be a significant independent risk factor. This association may be related to the effects of metabolic stress associated with mild hypoxia in individuals with mood disorders."
I had never seen a side-by-side comparison of elevation and suicide on maps before, so I made one. Suicide rates are in purple on the left; elevation is on the right:
Granted, it doesn't line up perfectly, but there's clearly something to be said for this elevation link. Colorado does not have the highest suicide rate, nor the highest rate of gun ownership, but it does have the highest elevation. Considering the health and prosperity of its residents, there really is no reason for Colorado to be plagued by suicides, but it is.
Douglas Brinkley wrote about Hunter S. Thompson going to the mountains of Idaho in the sixties to find out why Hemingway did himself in while "cleaning" his shotgun, only to become Hemingway's spiritual successor, to the very end. Maybe if Thompson hadn't emulated Hemingway topographically, he'd have embraced his transformation into the decrepit "Elder Statesman of the Counterculture" he was turning into when he died.