New research finds link between living at altitude and suicide rates.

New research finds link between living at altitude and suicide rates.

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New research finds link between living at altitude and suicide rates.

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6656158913_23b6959553_bImage of Park City by joseph depalma

Perry Renshaw, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah, believes he has found a link between living at altitude and higher suicide rates. His case has been laid out in an article in Brain.Mic. Below you will find an excerpt from the article, but we really suggest you read the whole thing: There’s a Suicide Epidemic in Utah — And One Neuroscientist Thinks He Knows Why.

“Utah lies in a region of the country commonly known as the Rockies, the mountain states or even just “out west.” To those who analyze violent death data, it’s known as the “suicide belt.”

According to the National Violent Death Reporting System, a surveillance system run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Utah and other states in the Rockies consistently have the highest suicide rates in the country aside from Alaska. In the map below, the block of red — states with suicide rates over 14 per 100,000 people — is hard to miss.

Image Credit: KSL.com via CDC

Before heading west, Renshaw studied the effects of drug abuse on brain chemistry at Harvard Medical School. When he started working at the Salt Lake City Veteran Affairs’ mental illness center five years ago, suicide research was a priority. Shortly after Renshaw arrived, a suicidologist presented a map depicting suicide rates.

“From the beginning,” Renshaw said, recalling his developing eureka moment, “the statistical evidence seemed off the charts.”

To see if statistics could help explain why so many mountain-dwelling Americans commit suicide, Renshaw analyzed data on altitude, suicide and mental illness over the last five years.

In a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, a group of researchers, including Renshaw, analyzed state suicide rates with respect to gun ownership, population density, poverty, health insurance quality and availability of psychiatric care. Of all the factors, altitude had the strongest link to suicide — even the group of states with the least available psychiatric care had fewer suicides than the highest-altitude states, where psychiatric care was easier to find.

In a follow-up study, Renshaw looked at instances of suicide that involved guns and those that didn’t. Again, he found a positive correlation between suicide and altitude across the board.

Renshaw also used CDC violent death data to examine the relationship between altitude and mental illness. The elevation at which people live, he found, is a strong predictor of their mental health status.”

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