Rocky Mountain High
September 1, 2019 9:00 PM   Subscribe

His theory didn’t catch on until he and his colleagues published a 2011 paper that looked at all 2,584 counties in the U.S. and found a correlation between average altitude and suicide rate over the previous 20 years. They found that if a county was below 2,000 feet, their suicide rates were about half of counties at 4,000 to 5,000 feet. The counties with the highest suicide rates were above 9,000 feet.
posted by Chrysostom (27 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
OMG the researcher worried that taking seriously altitude as a factor in suicide is going to somehow make people pay less attention to guns and poverty. As if somehow there are guns and poverty fairies running around solving those problems right now or will be if only we don’t get distracted by this new research.

As someone who struggles with depression and dark thoughts on occasion, let me just send a hearty fuck you to that dude. I want all of the factors that contribute to depression known and tackled. If altitude makes many/some/any anti-depression meds stop working, that is also a big deal. *I don’t want this to be true for reasons* does not strike me as passion for evidence-based research. I do not mean to be unfair; there may well be issues with the research. Still, if there is any low-hanging fruit to be gathered when it comes to suicide, just fucking pick it already, you know?
posted by Bella Donna at 9:38 PM on September 1, 2019 [13 favorites]


Altitude, Gun Ownership, Rural Areas, and Suicide
When altitude, gun ownership, and population density are considered as predictor variables for suicide rates on a state basis, altitude appears to be a significant independent risk factor. This association may be related to the effects of metabolic stress associated with mild hypoxia in individuals with mood disorders.
Positive Association between Altitude and Suicide in 2584 U.S. Counties
Controlling for percent of age >50 yr, percent male, percent white, median household income, and population density of each county, the higher-altitude counties had significantly higher suicide rates than the lower-altitude counties. Similar findings were observed for both firearm-related suicides (59% of suicides) and nonfirearm-related suicides. We conclude that altitude may be a novel risk factor for suicide in the contiguous United States.
posted by MrVisible at 10:03 PM on September 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


Altitude is directly tied to length and coldness of winter. I see that they controlled for population density but not like growing season or leaf out dates. Or seasonality of suicides. Be interesting to see that.

I know as I get older winter seems more and more like something to be endured and I'm only in my 40s.
posted by fshgrl at 10:12 PM on September 1, 2019 [11 favorites]


The Scripps O2 Project at the University of California San Diego.
Oxygen levels are decreasing globally due to fossil-fuel burning. The changes are too small to have an impact on human health, but are of interest to the study of climate change and carbon dioxide. These plots show the atmospheric O2 concentration relative to the level around 1985. The observed downward trend amounts to 19 'per meg' per year. This corresponds to losing 19 O2 molecules out of every 1 million O2 molecules in the atmosphere each year.
posted by MrVisible at 10:13 PM on September 1, 2019 [9 favorites]


I was really surprised not to see anything here drawing the line between this and sleep apnea. It has terrified me a bit how much friends of mine have gone into super dark places over the lack of a CPAP machine, often making huge recoveries once that's available. It doesn't erase whatever else you're going through, but like... when you're already in a marginalized position, you need all the help you can get from your brain to get through things. Fixing everything else first seems like a terrible plan.
posted by Sequence at 10:32 PM on September 1, 2019 [13 favorites]


If the causal relationship is real, obviously it's just one of many factors that can influence depression in an individual. But I was just looking for this and someone linked to it on Twitter: The anesthetic effect of air at atmospheric pressure (abstract only). The gist is that nitrogen at one atmosphere acts as a sedative with a detectable impact on reaction time. Given that nitrogen at higher pressures can act as a narcotic as can a number of other breathable gases, it seems possible that there's a very mild effect at lower altitudes that might slightly suppress depression in the general population enough to be noticeable in suicide statistics.
posted by figurant at 10:41 PM on September 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


A map of Suicide Rate By County In The US, data from Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 2004-2009.
posted by MrVisible at 10:51 PM on September 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


*I don’t want this to be true for reasons*

I feel like that's a large percentage of discussion I see these days.
Good reasons don't change the truth, but you wouldn't know that from the internet.
posted by bongo_x at 12:37 AM on September 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


To see whether this is physical or social, I think going outside the US would be a good idea. Do high-elevation areas around the world obey a similar trend? Are people living in the Andes in Peru more likely to commit suicide than those in coastal areas. Frenchmen living on the Alps compared to those living by the ocean? If this is physical it should be happening around the world in one form or another.
posted by talos at 12:40 AM on September 2, 2019 [14 favorites]


If this is physical it should be happening around the world in one form or another.

Not necessarily. Populations that have lived at high altitude for generations may have selected for altitude tolerance. Those driven to suicide either left or died.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:22 AM on September 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


Not necessarily. Populations that have lived at high altitude for generations may have selected for altitude tolerance. Those driven to suicide either left or died.

Then why isn't this the case in the United States? You'd need to at least demonstrate that high-altitude and low-altitude populations are more long-term, more stable, with less movement between the two in everywhere else in the world than the US to even lay the grounds for that thesis, no?
posted by Dysk at 3:11 AM on September 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


Not necessarily. Populations that have lived at high altitude for generations may have selected for altitude tolerance. Those driven to suicide either left or died.

This only "works" if people reliably commit suicide before they would have otherwise reproduced.
posted by chiquitita at 3:47 AM on September 2, 2019 [7 favorites]


They used to recommend going to the seaside to convalesce including for agoraphobia and emotional disorders. I wonder if the low altitude was part of this.

One thing that strikes me is that the economy can be different at higher altitudes - There may be fewer opportunities in agriculture. Human settlement patterns follow the water, we cluster along the rim of oceans, lakes and rivers. The further you go from the water the lower the population density and the more the cost of transportation, which in turn makes an economic impact. There will be fewer jobs and fewer customers and you may have more trouble finding a physician who will prescribe anti-depressants, let alone a counselor. I wonder if that is one small part of this phenomena.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:54 AM on September 2, 2019 [5 favorites]


Re the comments about other places and population stability, the article indicates that studies have found similar results in Spain, South Korea and Austria, and also that Montana records show that half the people who committed there suicide had moved there from lower elevations, so possibly specifically moving to a higher altitude may be a trigger.
posted by Dorothea Ladislaw at 5:05 AM on September 2, 2019 [9 favorites]


One thing perplexes me about the critique that focusing on altitude diminishes the importance of focusing on guns, social isolation, stigma around mental illness and lack of access to care, etc.: we keep talking like it’s impossible for all of these factors to correlate for a reason.

I mean, just spitballing here, but I’m doing so from the heart of the “suicide belt.” A lot of people live here because someone else made a choice for us and we can’t afford to escape. A lot of people live here because they love the mountains — either for recreation, beauty, or isolation from the “kind of people” who live at lower elevation. We are more homogenized than other regions, and our utter lack of gun laws will let you amass the arsenal of your wildest fetishes. I hear people brag about how strangers say hello on the street here, and...sure? But the lack of more-cosmopolitan boundaries seems to inspire people saying far crueler things too — to friends and strangers alike.

The woman quoted at the beginning of the article saying she feels like no one around here wants her? This place is programmed to make you feel that way, and if you’re in enough such pain, you’ll probably treat other people in such a way as to make them feel unwanted too. People scale the mountain to feel above it all. Then they look down and inevitably start thinking about jumping. But they’re not sure, so maybe they can experience it vicariously if they goad someone else into trying it first.

All I know is, anytime I’m at sea level, things feel a lot less antagonistic, environmentally and socially. It just feels a lot less like everyone and everything around you is just daring you to keep breathing.
posted by armeowda at 7:17 AM on September 2, 2019 [19 favorites]


I just see a correlation between hatred and self-hatred.
posted by hypnogogue at 8:05 AM on September 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


Higher temperatures increase suicide rates in the United States and Mexico

Long-term exposure to ambient air pollutants and mental health status: A nationwide population-based cross-sectional study
Based on the computer-assisted personal interviews to measure subjective stress in daily life, EuroQoL-5 dimensions, depression diagnosis by a doctor, suicidal ideation, and suicidal attempts, we evaluated the risk of mental disorders using multiple logistic regression analysis according to the quartiles of air pollutants, such as particulate matter < 10μm (PM10), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), and sulfur dioxide, using yearly average concentration between August 2012 and July 2013. The prevalence of high stress, poor QoL, depressiveness, diagnosis of depression, and suicide ideation was positively associated with high concentrations of PM10, NO2, and CO after adjusting for confounding factors. Men were at increased risk of stress, poor QoL, and depressiveness from air pollution exposure than were women. The risk of higher stress or poor QoL in subjects < age 65 increased with air pollution more than did that in subjects ≥ age 65. Long-term exposure to ambient air pollution may be an independent risk factor for mental health disorders ranging from subjective stress to suicide ideation.
Violent crime increases during warmer weather, no matter the season, study finds

How Air Pollution Is Doing More Than Killing Us

Air pollution linked to psychotic experiences in young people

THE POLLUTED BRAIN: Evidence builds that dirty air causes Alzheimer’s, dementia

Air pollution rots our brains. Is that why we don’t do anything about it?

Air pollution increases crime in cities – here’s how

Carbon Dioxide “Alarm System” Might Help Explain Anxiety Disorders

A warming world increases air pollution

We are large mammals with very large brains. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that the changes we're making to our atmosphere might have disproportionate effects on our mentality.
posted by MrVisible at 8:06 AM on September 2, 2019 [8 favorites]


This is an invaluable clue. I have very little hope in general, thanks to depression, lol.. but for some reason this has lifted my spirits ever so slightly. This is a solid finding.

Anecdotally my wife lived in Denver for a while and she said it was the most depressed she's ever felt.
posted by captain afab at 8:09 AM on September 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


My first thought was that altitude doesn't affect me this way. I spent some time living in the mountain west and I loved it and always felt like it made me happy. And then I remembered that probably the most depressed I've ever been (not even close to suicidal, though) was when I was doing field work for my thesis in Montana. I was living alone in a tiny town where I didn't know anyone, going out into the field alone every day, coming home and spending the evenings alone. It was back in the days before the internet and cell phones and I didn't even have a phone where I lived, so I was really cut off from other people. That seemed like reason enough for me to become so depressed and it still does, even though I'm a huge introvert who loves being alone. It may have had nothing at all to do with altitude. But I wonder . . . I remember during that period I used to wake up sometimes at night gasping and feeling as if I hadn't been getting enough air. Interesting.
posted by Redstart at 8:45 AM on September 2, 2019 [5 favorites]


Oxygen levels are decreasing globally due to fossil-fuel burning. ... The observed downward trend amounts to 19 'per meg' per year. This corresponds to losing 19 O2 molecules out of every 1 million O2 molecules in the atmosphere each year.

Just for context this amounts to a change in altitude of less than 3 feet. You experience a bigger change just getting out of bed every morning.

Over a decade, it would be the equivalent of walking up from your basement to the attic of your house.
posted by JackFlash at 9:55 AM on September 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


I hope that the authors of the study have done their best to control for the effects of living near a coastline. With a good chunk of the world's population and possibly prosperity densely packed near coasts wouldn't the experience of living in a city near the water be very different from living inland in less urban communities?
posted by rdr at 10:43 AM on September 2, 2019


Geez, sometimes Metafilter is like the worst kind of Reviewer #2, the kind who like just started reviewing papers, and only comments things like "but why did you do THIS study instead of this OTHER study looking at this OTHER possible thing?" and "But you didn't CONTROL for how many HAMBURGERS your subjects ate so how do you KNOW your results aren't really about HAMBURGERS?"
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:17 AM on September 2, 2019 [21 favorites]


Just for context this amounts to a change in altitude of less than 3 feet. You experience a bigger change just getting out of bed every morning.

Over a decade, it would be the equivalent of walking up from your basement to the attic of your house.


Over a century, then, it'd be what, an altitude change of 250 feet? So seventeen stories gets added to the highest elevations in the world per century. And that's if things like the acidification of the oceans and the burning of our forests don't speed things up.
posted by MrVisible at 11:29 AM on September 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


Anecdotally, I always feel a very soothing calm while in Denver. Living in Chicago, however, made me want to kill myself. Although now that I think about it I can see living in Denver leading to that sort of blissfully suicidal one can feel after a bout of euphoria.
posted by Young Kullervo at 2:49 PM on September 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


Utah gets to be in the Venn diagram of a lot of these correlated issues. High altitudes, frequent bad air quality, long dark winters, oppressive social culture...makes getting away a requirement.
posted by msbutah at 1:35 PM on September 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


makes getting away a requirement.

QFT. I live within a half-mile of where three of my family members died (though, full disclosure, only one was a suicide). I realized recently that I’d really like to have my eventual death certificate signed somewhere else...maybe somewhere with an NHL team and some relative humidity for my tired old nostrils.
posted by armeowda at 9:22 PM on September 3, 2019


NHL + humidity = Pittsburgh!
posted by Chrysostom at 2:41 PM on September 4, 2019


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