More Weld County residents died of suicide in 2013 than ever before. For those left behind, their loved ones’ deaths can have a lasting impact on their own health and well-being.
There are theories as to why the county’s suicide rate is the highest it’s ever been but experts are cautious about tying the increase to any one factor.
“Suicide is a very personal and complex decision for each individual,” said Kimberly Pratt, a suicide educator and clinician with North Range Behavioral Health. “What we do know for sure is that untreated depression is the No. 1, most identifiable risk factor in suicide and that men are less likely to seek support for depression.”
Men commit 80 percent of Weld County’s suicides, guns are involved in about 50 percent of suicides, and men between the ages of 45 and 64 are at the highest risk of suicide, according to data from the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment.
Men are at a higher risk, in part, because studies show that men tend to use more lethal means, such as guns, to kill themselves.
Women tend to use less lethal means, such as poisoning, according to Emmy Betz, an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at CU Denver.
“Nationally, the suicide death rate for men is much higher than for women. This is in part because men tend to attempt suicide with lethal methods such as guns, so they are less likely to survive,” Betz said. “They may also be less likely to seek help for depression.”
Although alarming, Betz said Weld County’s high rates for suicides involving men, guns and those between the ages of 45 and 64 are consistent with trends statewide and nationally.
While what drives a person to end their life is a complex matter and different for each individual, the loved ones they leave behind all have something in common — their pain.
‘Misery loves company’
After 16 years of marriage, Greeley resident Cindy Gamet’s ex-husband killed himself while the couple was living in Laporte.
The memory of his suicide 21 years ago is still fresh for Gamet, who said her husband had been struggling with depression and began treating it with the drug Prozac, and it seemed to be helping.
Then, in a six-month period, he found out he was a diabetic and had a heart attack. Gamet said his depression led him to self-medicate. His drug of choice, initially, was marijuana, but later he began manipulating his insulin, she said.
“A lot of things were compounding physically for him and that added to his depression,” Gamet said. “He stopped taking Prozac and we struggled back and forth with the therapist. He didn’t want to go.”
Gamet was also struggling with depression herself.
“I was going to therapy, too,” she said. “It was a sick relationship. He wasn’t a bad man but our relationship was profoundly sad. Misery loves company.”
Studies show more than 90 percent of all people who die by suicide had a diagnosable mental condition at the time of their deaths, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“Depression is the single most identifiable risk factor associated with suicide — and depression can be treated,” said Pratt, the suicide educator. “People often feel fear, shame and/or embarrassment about having depression, but it is common and as treatable as a broken arm. Our job is to teach people that.”
Gamet said she and her husband would butt heads when she wanted to go out and socialize with friends, or later when she decided to go back and get her GED. After arguing about the subject, Gamet eventually took her therapist’s advice and took the GED test without telling anyone. She passed.
“I told him after I took the test and he was so angry with me,” Gamet said. “He had tried a couple times before to commit suicide and this time he was so angry with me, he threatened to do it again. He walked into the bedroom and closed the door behind him. I guess my intuition kicked in and a voice inside my head said ‘you’re not safe.’ ”
Though Gamet said her husband had never been abusive toward her or her daughter, she ran upstairs to get her 18-year-old daughter and told her they needed to get out of the house because she feared for their safety.
“We ran,” she said. “We didn’t even stop to put our shoes on. We literally ran out of the house and down the street.”
She called the sheriff’s office from a nearby gas station and asked for someone to check on her husband. When police arrived, her husband had barricaded himself in the house and a five-hour standoff ensued. It ended with her husband taking his own life.
After his death, Gamet said those around her were judgmental. Some told her his suicide was a sin, and he would be going to hell. Others asked her why there was a gun in the house.
“I felt shamed,” she said. “I felt like these were circumstances that one doesn’t have to go through with other struggles.”
Pratt said the stigma associated with suicide has been around for a long time and suicide prevention groups are actively working to turn that around.
“People are uncomfortable with the topic. Even the word ‘commit’ makes one think of a ‘sin,’ ” Pratt said. “Thankfully, through continued education and public discussion, we are breaking down the stigmas associated with mental health, depression and suicide.”
Later, Gamet said, she found solace in a suicide support group in Larimer County. She said she wasn’t looking for anyone to tell her she was OK, but instead needed others who had gone through that experience, as well to hear her and understand what she’d been through.
“As a woman, I think that we think we’re caretakers,” Gamet said. “I wanted to help him with his illness. With hindsight being 20/20, I now know that it’s a folly. In some ways, allowing me to be responsible for his illness added to him not taking care of himself. Over the years, I think that weakened him.”
Eight months later, Gamet met the man she is married to today. His wife had died by suicide three years before Gamet’s ex-husband, and she said the connection was one of the couple’s fundamental building blocks for their relationship.
Gamet said she still struggles with her depression to this day, and continues to take antidepressant medication, which she said has been helpful for her.
“I’m not suicidal, it’s more of a profound sadness,” Gamet said. “Medication helps. Sometimes you just need a reset button for the neurons in your brain. It’s the aid that helps me when I get up in the morning and say to myself, ‘I’m going to have a good day.’ ”
Always there for everyone
Jennifer Usher lost her 16-year-old son, Adam Usher, to suicide last Nov. 7, and soon after in January, her ex-boyfriend, who was Adam’s father, killed himself, too.
She said Adam was a kid who was always there for everyone. He was often the one talking his friends through the trouble they seemed to be having in their lives.
“He would suffer inside but was always the one to make everybody laugh,” Usher said. “He was a jokester. He liked to be the clown but it was kind of his mask for hiding his inner pain.”
She said her ex-boyfriend of 18 years, Jamie Zamora, was abusive to her and her sons. She said depression seemed to run in Zamora’s side of the family and, when Adam was 6, she said she began to notice symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
When Adam turned 15, he began cutting to harm himself and his doctor prescribed him Zoloft, a drug prescribed for both depression and PTSD.
Usher took him to the emergency room and doctors placed Adam in a two-week mental health program at Mountain Crest Behavioral Healthcare Center in Fort Collins.
She said while there, he was taught coping strategies to help him deal with his struggles.
Usher said he seemed to be doing well for about a year, before he complained that his medication made him feel numb.
“The day before he made his decision we had gone to the doctor to look at some different medications,” she said. “They just doubled his dose that he was on, and I kind of think that was his final straw.”
The next day, Adam made the decision to take his own life.
“He just wasn’t a soul for this world,” his mom said. “It broke my heart. I felt like I had a huge hole in my heart. I can’t think straight, I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. I’m getting better, but it’s still there. It feels like I have bricks on my shoulders.”
Usher said she relied on her friends and family, as well as her coworkers at The Greeley Tribune, for support following the loss of her son and Zamora.
“It’s been really hard,” Usher said. “Jamie (Zamora) and I had been separated for quite a while. His (suicide) just made me angry. He blamed me for (her son’s) suicide. He wanted us to get back together. Up to the minute he did it, he was texting me.”
Pratt said the majority of people grieving after the loss of a loved one to suicide describe their feeling as “unimaginable pain.”
“Those left behind often deal with emotions like severe grief and depression, abandonment, guilt, anger, and deep sadness,” Pratt said. “They also suffer physically, and often will have extreme changes in their eating and sleeping habits. They may become socially withdrawn.”
She said North Range Behavioral Health’s Suicide Education and Support Services offer immediate and ongoing support for family members and friends who are left behind.
But, as a single mother, Usher said she had a hard time finding low-income options for mental health.
“It was $20,000 to send Adam to Mountain Crest for two weeks,” she said. “Adam knew his head wasn’t right. He’d tell me ‘Mom, I want to get my head fixed.’ ”
Her other son, 20-year-old Jaysun Usher-Zamora, has been a huge source of support for her through the whole ordeal, she said.
“He’s trying to be really strong for me,” Usher said. “One thing that will always stick in my head is Jaysun had bought Adam his Christmas present already when it happened. He had bought new Pokemon games for both to play together, two game systems and two games. Now he plays both, one the way he would play it and one the way his brother would have played it. They were really close.”
After Adam died, North Range Behavioral Health therapists went to his school to talk to the kids about what happened, and give them a forum to voice their feelings.
“Many kids came forward and said how much Adam helped them and how they miss him,” Usher said. “If you had asked Adam, he wouldn’t have said that. He didn’t understand all those people cared about him.”
Pratt said one of North Range’s services is going out to the community and offering training on suicide prevention. They go to high schools, businesses, churches, and community groups to train counselors and offer preventative services.
The organization also does what they call “post-ventions,” where they go into a school or organization affected by a recent suicide and give people a forum to speak and be heard.
According to the county health department, 17 percent of high school students in Weld County said they had considered suicide at some point and 12 percent said they had made a plan of how they would do it.
In 2013, no one under the age of 10 committed suicide in Weld County but four suicides involved people between the ages of 10 and 19.
“Those are sobering statistics, but the fact is, at some point in their lives, most people will have a suicidal thought,” Pratt said. “This does not mean they will have a plan or action, but they will go through some type of extreme difficulty in their life and think about suicide.”
She added, “What is more difficult than being a teenager today? One of the best things we can do for our youth is to let them know it is OK to get help, and also teach them the warning signs and how to get help for themselves and their friends.”
Pratt said adults and parents need to be open to discussing suicide with youth in a safe, non-threatening and non-judgmental way.
“It is also very important that we believe our young people and act when they tell us that they or their friends are thinking about suicide,” she said. “Talking about suicide to youth does not cause suicide. In fact, after a SAFE:Teen presentation, we routinely refer an average of 10 students, all of whom have asked for help for themselves, a friend or family member.”
Greeley-Evans School District 6 spokeswoman Theresa Myers said counselors at the district’s secondary schools and teachers are the first line of defense in identifying at-risk students.
She said the district handles each situation on a case-by-case basis, based on the individual needs of the student.
While the overall suicide rate is the highest it’s ever been in the county, Myers said the district hasn’t seen an increase in the amount of risk-assessments needed for students.
She said recent numbers have been on par with previous years.
No Warning Signs
In August, a Greeley woman, who asked not to be identified, and her boyfriend were making plans for their future. They had been dating for five months before he ended his own life.
“We were in that stage of the relationship where we were just happy,” she said. “We had plans for that night. That weekend. The holidays.”
He did well at work, often getting recognized for being a model employee.
“Everybody loved him,” she said. “He was funny, happy, had lots of friends. He was part of a big family and was close with them and even his family didn’t see it coming.”
She said his suicide came as a surprise to many of the people closest to him because he didn’t exhibit signs of any mental health or drug abuse issue, as is often the case in those who complete suicide.
“I’ve seen the articles in the paper with the list (of symptoms),” she said. “It’s one of those things that’s really annoying because he wasn’t any of those things. It kind of makes it seem like you should have seen those symptoms and you blame yourself for not knowing.”
After his death, her employer covered five visits to go see a private licensed professional counselor, who guided her through her grief. She said if her employer didn’t provide for the counseling, she would have been paying $2,500 out-of-pocket to attend the sessions.
“We talked about all of this and she said it was a good thing I was a strong person because of all the things I went through afterward,” she said. “And everyone just wants you to be OK.”
She said the stigma associated with suicide made the grieving process difficult. She had a neighbor tell her that he would burn for eternity because it was a sinful act. Some of those close to him even refused to attend the religious service held after his death, she said.
“I don’t think anyone talks about the aftermath,” she said. “People avoided me.”
She said the counseling sessions were a safe place to talk and to cry, if she needed. But her insurance provider recently told her she needs to take a break in her sessions, and she won’t be able to keep attending regularly unless she is willing to pay out of pocket.
While there are other resources available in the community, such as group counseling sessions for suicide survivors and loved ones through North Range Behavioral Health, she said she doesn’t think a group setting would work well for her right now.
“I’m still grieving,” she said. “It’s like you have a giant hole in your chest. I just wish there were more options, because we’re all different. I’m just taking it one day at a time.”