Research links living at high altitudes with Rocky Mountain ‘Suicide Belt’
Calgary — People come from all over the world to take in the Canadian Rockies and some are even lucky enough to call the area home, but emerging research suggests a link between living in higher elevations and higher rates of suicide.
The study out of the University of Utah is garnering attention from communities along the Rocky Mountains due to its research into the relationship between higher altitudes and the impact on brain chemistry.
According to the study, oxygen density decreases as altitude rises, which leads to a decrease in serotonin and an increase in dopamine, two chemicals that regulate feelings of happiness.
The research suggests that may play a role in the high suicide rates in Utah and areas above 2,000 feet above sea level along the Rocky Mountains, dubbed the “Suicide Belt.”
The news caught a lot of people who call Canmore, Alta., home by surprise, including Natalie Love.
She’s been drawn to the community for the last six summers and found it ironic that an area many seek out for its natural beauty has a potential ugly underside.
“I feel like being outdoors and getting out into natures, there’s so much opportunity to hike and stuff like that, which is great for your mental health,” she said.
Many factors at play
The executive director for the Centre for Suicide Prevention said more research needs to be done locally as there are many other factors at play when it comes to people at risk of suicide.
“I would also ask a few other questions. ‘Who lives in these mountain parks? Who lives in these towns?’ We know Banff for example has a very transient population. So, is it the altitude that’s leading to these findings or is there different social determinants that these people have in a pre-existing way that they are bringing with them,” said Mara Grunau.
Over the last five years, Canmore had a dramatically higher suicide rate per 100,000 people than compared to the provincial average. Banff also saw more than double the suicide rates compared to Calgary in 2018.
However, Peter Quinn who works with Bow Valley Victims Services said the statistics can be misleading.
“The populations are small so the stats are a little higher. Sometimes that can be reflective of one or two deaths and can skew the stats in these smaller communities,” he said.
'Start a conversation'
Quinn hasn’t noticed particular trends when it comes to suicides in the area but said he’s open to the study because mental health is very complex.
He said the area is lucky to have a number of resources for people at risk and encourages people to reach out if they, or someone they know, is struggling.
“The best way to help people is really to listen to them,” he said. “Whether you’re a friend or coworker, if you see someone struggle in life just ask them how they are and take the time to listen. Start a conversation it’s really the best thing you can do.”
The study’s researchers acknowledge there are other factors at play and more research needs to be done but if the theory proves to be correct, it marks a major advancement in helping people understand how where they live may impact their mental health and ultimately seek help if needed.
If you or anyone you know is at risk of suicide contact Crisis Service Canada or call 1-833-456-4566.