As suicide rates rise, Durangoans use their stories to help others

Friday, Sept. 29, 2017 1:02 PM

Thirteen suicides have been reported in La Plata County this year. A study conducted in 2016 by the American Association of Suicidology found suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for more than 1 percent of all deaths. It is the second leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24. Two Durango residents have shared their stories about attempting suicide or having suicidal tendencies, with hopes that their personal experiences will play a part in breaking down stigmas about mental illness.

“I believe one of the main reasons that suicide rates are so high in our community and region is because there is a negative stigma revolving around mental illness and suicide,” Durango resident Lynn Dearey said. “We can talk about bears getting into our trash, fluoride in our water or the Animas River being toxic, but if you bring up mental illness, everyone becomes mimes and mannequins and all you hear are crickets chirping.”

Lynn Dearey: ‘In my mind, my kids and husband were better off without me’Lynn Dearey attempted suicide in August 2008 after enduring several bouts of depression and anxiety.

On a good day, just putting a cup into the dishwasher was an achievement. She felt like a burden on her husband and two children.

After not sleeping or eating for nearly three weeks, Dearey, 44, said she saw no other option. She overdosed on a concoction of over-the-counter medication.

“The fact that I’m sitting here is a miracle of God because I got to the point where I asked myself if I wanted to die,” she said. “Did I want to die? No. But was I tired of the pain? Yes. In my mind, my kids and husband were better off without me.”

When Dearey was taken to the hospital, the medical team told her family it was unlikely she would survive, and if she did, she would have no quality of life.

“I had friends who heard the nurses talking about an organ transplant because the young woman coming in was in such rough shape that they weren’t anticipating a survival,” she said. “The doctor told my husband, ‘If your wife makes it, she will probably be a vegetable because we don’t know what types of drugs she took or how much blood she lost.’”

Medical intervention saved Deary, but it was a long road to recovery after her attempt.

“I had four years of pure hell after,” she said. “I stayed at a mental hospital in Texas, I saw psychiatrists, therapists, counselors and pastors. I was on every kind of medication you can imagine.”

Her husband – whom she calls her “rock of rocks” – children, in-laws and church family were her main sources of support during that difficult time.

In an effort to help pull her from the depths of her depression, Dearey’s husband, who asked not to be identified, suggested repeatedly over the years that she volunteer at a local nonprofit to get her mind off herself.

She refused.

“When someone is depressed and they are not ready to do something about it or don’t want to, they are not going to,” she said. “I was still just a mess. I would put my kids on the bus in the morning and if I didn’t have to work, I would just lay in bed all day long.”

Dearey emphasized that people who suffer from mental illness often need to take action on their own timeline. She said there is a common misconception that mental illness can be easily cured.

“If you’ve never been through depression, anxiety or mental illness, you are absolutely in no way entitled to speak about it,” she said. “For someone to say, ‘just snap out of it’ is absolutely asinine. If I had five dollars for everyone that told me to snap out of it, I could retire early.”

Then, nearly four years after her suicide attempt, Dearey felt drawn to become a volunteer at Manna soup kitchen, where she found a latent passion for baking and cooking.

It turned out to be pivotal in her ongoing recovery. She said volunteering helped lessen the “obsessive” thoughts about her situation.

“What helped me pull out of it was what my husband was telling me to do, and what I tell other people: Reach out and help someone else,” she said.

Dearey said what caused her attempt is not as important as what she is choosing to do since her attempt.

She has expanded her help beyond Manna and volunteers as a gatekeeper for Southern Ute Community Action Programs. Gatekeepers are trained to engage with a person at risk of suicide by talking about other options and connecting the person to clinical emergency mental health services.

Dearey also attends as many suicide prevention meetings as she can because it encourages her to see that she is not alone “in my passion to see this change.”

If she can help just one person, she said, her efforts are worth it.

“If we thought less about ourselves and more about other people, I believe suicide wouldn’t be the epidemic that it has become here,” she said. “Durango is good at saying we care, and we do show it when the bottom falls out of life, but how about showing it on a daily basis? Do you realize that your smile could save someone’s life?”

Luke Mehall boulders on Wednesday near Turtle Lake. Mehall suffered from a severe bout of depression in the summer of 1999 but attributes rock climbing to helping him overcome it.

Luke Mehall: ‘I left home and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to live or not’Luke Mehall was 20 years old when he struggled with suicidal thoughts in the summer of 1999.

He was bouncing between colleges near Bloomington, Illinois, and coping with the thoughts through drugs and alcohol.

“It was a really difficult period in my life, and quite simply, I wasn’t doing much,” he said. “I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, drinking and popping pills. It was a cocktail for craziness.”

On a whim one day, Mehall, now 38, got in his car and started driving without a destination.

He never attempted suicide, but he would often drive for such long periods of time that he would fall asleep at the wheel.

“I was so depressed and down and out of my mind that I decided to take off in my car,” he said. “There was a three-week period where I left home and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to live or not. It was easier to fall off the map back then.”

He ended up in Gunnison, where he eventually got back in touch with friends and family.

Mehall said his parents supported him to stay in Colorado, and he embraced rock climbing and became an avid outdoorsman, which he credits for saving his life.

“It is natural to get depressed,” he said. “But if you can find something that you’re passionate about that snaps you out of your depression, that’s the thing.”

Today, Mehall lives in Durango and works as a full-time writer and publisher. He has written four books and publishes Climbing Zine, a rock climbing magazine.

His memoir, American Climber, tells the story about how the sport saved his life.

He said he felt obligated to write about it, because stories save lives.

“When I went to college, I wanted to be an activist,” he said. “Although that didn’t happen with my life path, the No. 1 way I can affect the world now is by sharing my story with someone else to enhance their life.”

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Lynn Dearey plays with her dog, Bella, at their La Plata County home on Wednesday. Dearey, a suicide attempt survivor, has made it her mission to share her story with others. She also volunteers as a gatekeeper for Southern Ute Community Action Programs.
Luke Mehall boulders on Wednesday near Turtle Lake. Mehall suffered from a severe bout of depression in the summer of 1999 but attributes rock climbing to helping him overcome it.