December 11, 2016

A new view on the suicide epidemic

It's been common knowledge for the last few years that the state of Utah has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. Currently, Utah has the nation's 5th highest suicide rate.

For many this statistic may sound surprising, especially because a recent survey showed that Utah was voted the happiest state to live in by its citizens. The survey showed people loved the snow-covered mountain, national parks, and having the shortest average work week in the country. So, why then, does Utah have such a high rate of mood disorders and suicide?

There have been many different ideas and theories proposed to potentially explain the recent spike in suicides in Utah, many of them claiming that perhaps the dominant religious influence might have something to do with it. There are also those who think it could be due to the amount of snow or the major gun use in the state. But Perry Renshaw, a neuroscientist at the University of  Utah has proposed a new idea with research to support what he believes will explain the real root of the problem.

In an article produced by Mic, Renshaw explains that altitude has an impact on our brain chemistry. It changes the levels of serotonin and dopamine which are two key chemicals that help to regulate our feelings of happiness. This disorder is called hypoxia,which can be caused by asthma, or because the air happens to be thinner at higher altitudes.

Since moving to Utah in 2008, Renshaw has found mounting statistical, scientific and anecdotal support for his theory. This could help explain and be a major step in solving a long-standing mystery in the world of mental health.

Utah currently resides in the part of the country known as the Rockies, areas of the country where residents live high into the mountains. But, those who study and analyze violent deaths across the nation know it by another name- "the suicide belt."

According to statistics, 9 out of the 10 states with the highest suicide rates are in the western part of the nation. To see if mountains could help explain these statistics, Renshaw studied and analyzed data and found that altitude had the strongest link to suicide.

In an interview with Men's Journal, Renshaw explained that those who have moved from a state with low altitude into a state with higher altitude are at risk of experiencing hypoxia, but so are those who have a history of mental illness in their family, and says anyone experiencing symptoms should seek help.

He does not, however, believe that moving away from Utah, or any other mountain state, is the answer. He said, "This is intended to be pro-mountain research, because its only once you identify a problem and what's causing it that you can fix it. The goal for the next 3 years is to focus on how we can improve outcomes. Now, that we know where a lot of people are taking antidepressants, we can make those more effective, or get dietary interventions to get the point where they can get well without them."

So for those living in Utah, the best thing to do is become educated. Learn how to understand and recognize the signs of different mood disorders and know how to get the help needed. For help finding resources, click here for more information.

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