As witnessed by Park County Sheriff and Coroner
Park County Sheriff Tom McGraw said, in a Nov. 30 interview with The Flume, that the volume of calls his office receives related to suicides, attempted suicides, suicide threats and mental health issues as a whole, is noteworthy.
“It seems like, on average, we receive suicide-related calls every other day,” McGraw said. “I have really been surprised by that, and by the number of incidents overall that we respond to that involve mental illnesses in some form or another.”
“Responding to suicides where family members are present can be very, very difficult,” McGraw said. “Family members are almost always blindsided by what has happened, and my heart just goes out to them.”
McGraw recalled a recent incident when two of his deputies arrived on time to talk a local resident out of committing suicide, and another recent incident that didn’t go nearly as well.
“I went on one call recently where a lady’s spouse had committed suicide, and she was just so devastated and shocked that it made me worry about her, and her health,” McGraw said. “I went back about a week later just to check on her … it’s a really hard thing to witness.”
McGraw also noted that many suicides that occur within Park County are not carried out by local residents, and that often people come to the solitude of the mountains, away from their primary places of residence, to take their own lives.
Many of those calls to the Sheriff’s Office ultimately do come in time and results in the prevention of suicides, and. Many calls, however, come too late, thus requiring the involvement of Park County coroner Dave Kintz.
When asked about the frequency of suicide-related calls he hears each day on the Park County law enforcement radio, Kintz’s response rang eerily familiar.
“It seems like every other day you hear something suicide-related.” Kintz said.
Kintz devotes much of his time to investigating suicide, and its potential causes on a case-by-case basis. This year there have thirteen cases in Park County, all of which Kintz has investigated.
“We obviously can’t be in anyone’s head to say definitively why they committed suicide,” Kintz said. “But from what we know, of the 13 suicides in 2018, two of them appear to have been related to depression, two to finances, two due to marital difficulties, another due to poor health, another due to alcohol and depression, another to mental illness, another to legal problems and drugs, another to mental illness, another was career-related and another seemed to be what we refer to as ‘impulsive.’”
Kintz says that after having spent as long as he has as a coroner, and understanding that death is imminent for us all, it is unusual for him encounter cases that rattle him from an emotional standpoint. The exception to the rule, however, according to Kintz, is youth suicides.
“Yes,” Kintz said, “they impact me … and all of us.”
A daunting challenge for educators
Counselors at Deer Creek Elementary School in Bailey are requesting additional resources to combat mental health issues amongst its students.
Superintendent Mike Schmidt, when presenting the request for additional counseling to the Platte Canyon School District Board of Education at its regularly scheduled October meeting, described the need as “immediate.”
“Emotional issues among students at Deer Creek are increasing,” Schmidt said. “There is a need for more sex education, and suicide risks are reportedly also increasing. We are not alone. We are seeing these same problems everywhere.
“Our current staff of counselors says they are simply having trouble handling the workload. So we need support there that is within our budget structure, and we need to be proactive because the need for that support is immediate.”
Platte Canyon School Board member Joe Burgett insisted at that same meeting that more resources needed to be devoted to address the mental health issues of students, even if it requires considerable modifications to the district’s current budget.
Burgett, who serves as a first-responder in his role as chief of the Platte Canyon Fire Protection District, gave a somewhat chilling personal account regarding his knowledge of suicide rates in Park County.
“If we do not address these issues as a society, we might see declining enrollment numbers due purely to suicides,” Burgett said. “I would absolutely vouch for a blown budget if that’s what’s required to find mental health care for these students.”
During the public comments portion of the meeting, district employee Jessica Stiebig added an exceptionally emotional and personal plea for more counselors and suicide prevention measures throughout the district.
“I lost a brother to suicide, and I have a child who has admitted to having suicidal thoughts,” Stiebig said. “Times are changing, and we have to be aware of that and go forward with more clubs, training and counseling. I would gladly give up part of my own salary if it would help to address these issues.”
Bailey suicides – as witnessed from ground zero
Harry VanGulick, 15
Susan VanGulick still wonders how things might have turned out differently. She wonders why more hints were not given, and why those that were, somehow went unnoticed.
Most of all, she misses her son, Harry, who died by suicide during the spring of 2017 at the age of 15. Harry was a sophomore at Platte Canyon High School. He was popular among his peers, seemingly well adjusted and an exceptional student.
“Sometimes kids will display any number of warning signs, but unfortunately, Harry did not,” VanGulick said. “Harry did tell one of his friends what he was considering, and that friend did go to an adult with that information, but it was too late by several hours. We were completely blindsided.”
Bailey residents, VanGulick, and husband Dale, have been married for 21 years. Harry was the youngest of their four children.
Yard signs bearing Harry’s picture can be seen throughout the area. Those signs were printed and distributed by the VanGulicks as a means of raising suicide awareness. The VanGulicks are extremely active in a wide variety of suicide awareness activities, and have contributed considerable time and resources to such efforts.
Ryan Rees, 22, and Tyler Swindler, 19
Sitting quietly with a prepared script in hand, Rodney Rees sat through the entirety of the Oct. 4 PCSD school board meeting. He was awaiting the public input portion of the meeting so he could tell his story and voice his support for more counseling assistance at Deer Creek Elementary.
There were two public speakers registered to make comments at the meeting: Rees, and his adopted daughter, Jessica Stiebig.
Stiebig spoke initially, making an emotional but eloquent plea for the board to appropriate funds for additional counseling at Deer Creek Elementary. Stiebig discussed the issue first from a purely professional standpoint, as she in fact works for the district, as a counselor at Deer Creek Elementary.
Her voice was firm and convincing as she described the increasing need for experienced, compassionate counselors at the school. She explained that the need for personal guidance to students had recently ballooned into more than the staff could handle, and that additional help was needed immediately to meet the ever-increasing workload.
It was not until Stiebig reintroduced herself as the adopted older sister of Ryan Rees that the weight of her emotions began to show. Rees, a graduate of Platte Canyon High School, died by suicide Sept. 17, seven days prior to his twenty-third birthday.
With tears streaming down her face, Stiebig courageously continued to describe how her brother’s death only heightened her awareness, personally and professionally, to the need for more psychological and social help for students at the grade school level, and at all levels throughout the district. She closed by offering her own salary to assist with funding.
Stiebig left the jam-packed meeting room in a suspended state of silence, as audience members and school board members alike somberly absorbed her message. When Stiebig returned to her seat, her adopted father and biological father to Ryan Rees, Rodney Rees, was invited to make his presentation to the board.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Rees said. “I believe Jessica has said everything I had come here to say.”
Ryan Rees and his best friend, Tyler Swindler, took their lives together Sept. 17 on the property of the Olinger Mount Lindo Cemetery in Jefferson County. Swindler was also formerly a student at PCHS.
“Our family’s first inkling that anything was wrong with Ryan came about four hours after his death,” Rodney Rees said. “None of his problems were insurmountable, but at his age, I’m sure they probably seemed like they were. Some days are bad, and others are worse right now. I lost my best friend.
“Something has got to be done to help out youth in the mountain communities,” Rees said. “Kids can be isolated, and bored, especially in the winter months. Kids who are not involved in sports or other extra-curricular activities are especially vulnerable, but all of our kids need to know that they matter, that they are not alone, and that somebody loves them.”
The list of top 10 states where suicide rates are highest are exclusively in mountainous regions, and most of them are located in the western U.S.
Increasing incidents of suicide deaths are by no means limited to any single geographic location within the United States. According to the Colorado Health Institute, suicide is the tenth-leading cause of death in the United States. In 2017, over 47,000 Americans took their own lives.
According to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, however, Colorado’s suicide rate consistently ranks among the highest in the nation. About 17.5 percent of deaths in Colorado are the result of suicides. In 2017, a record 1,175 people died by suicide. Park County ranks amongst the highest tier of counties for suicides statewide.
Even more disturbing is that in the state of Colorado, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among adolescents behind unintentional injuries. Suicides have increased since 2014 in Park County every year except 2017. There were 13 reported suicides in 2018, the highest number since 2010, when there were 15.
About 18 percent of Park County deaths have been suicides over the last 10 years. That is slightly higher than both state and national averages. In 2009 and 2010, during years in which there were 14 and 15 suicides, respectively, suicides accounted for as much as 25 percent of all reported Park County deaths.
Grieving with a purpose
Both Susan VanGulick and Rodney Rees have recently responded with tireless efforts to ensure that others don’t suffer similar experiences, and that those who do receive the necessary support required to manage their grief.
They are both active participants, and volunteers, in local organizations designed to prevent suicide and to assist survivors of suicide deaths.
“I have become involved with the Colorado Parents of Suicide Loss Facebook group,” VanGulick said. “We purchased 800 Team Harry T-shirts and hoodies and provided them for free for the students and teens in Bailey and Conifer who wanted them. Friends and family and others purchased them as well. These are worn when we participate in 5Ks for Suicide Awareness and Prevention or any gathering where we are sharing about suicide prevention and awareness.
“On the 14th of each month, we encourage people all over, to perform intentional acts of kindness for others. We encourage them to especially look for teens who might be struggling.
“In December last year, we hosted an open house here. We accepted donations of cash and gift cards and selected 12 students who just needed some encouragement because of some tough times they were going through. This was very successful. We may repeat this fundraiser again this year. We were also able to give out two generous scholarships to students who were from the class of 2018, one from Conifer High School and one from Platte Canyon High School. These students exemplified kindness and looking out for others.”
Rees has been no less active, attending town hall meetings, school board meetings and reaching out in every direction to help prevent suicide. Rees has also started a group of his own which meets via Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/539882503445093/.
Both Rees and VanGulick have identified a variety of entities that educate and support the public with regards to the prevention of suicide, and also provide support for those it has affected. Some of those organizations are listed below:
The QPR Institute, www.qprinstitute.com.
The Hope Squad, www.hopesquad.com.
Mental Health First Aid Colorado, www.mhfaco.org.
Colorado Crisis Services. www.coloradocrisisservices.org.