In most Third World countries, there’s a sense that death can come at any time, at any age, but in America, where childhood mortality has steadily decreased during the last century, the death of young people comes as a shock.
Some young people die of cancer or other illnesses, but the two principal causes of death for people younger than 30 are both preventable – car crashes and suicide.
Behind the wheel
“There’s so much peer pressure, so much distracted driving,” said Capt. Adrian Driscoll, commander of District 5 Troop A of the Colorado State Patrol. “We have to attack that ‘I’m invincible’ attitude.”
Cellphone usage while driving, particularly texting, is a significant concern.
“People need to understand that’s the same as driving intoxicated,” he said.
In 2012, La Plata County saw numerous fatalities of young people on its roads and highways, including four people in their early 20s from Trinidad in one incident. They added to a total of 28 fatalities, Driscoll said, a 100 percent increase compared with the previous year’s total of 14 deaths.
After reviewing the factors that led to 68 fatalities in accidents during the last five years, Driscoll said 25 were caused by lane usage – people drifting or crossing into other lanes, including oncoming traffic; 16 by people driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs; 11 because of excessive speed; 10 because of inattentive driving; and six for failure to yield the right of way.
While car accidents are one of the primary causes of death for young people, the average person killed here in a vehicular accident is in the mid-40s to early 50s for men and 40s for women, and they are often visitors to the area, he said.
The biggest focus this year is the continued attempt to decrease drunken driving.
“Statewide, we’re struggling with DUIs,” Driscoll said. “We’ve really curbed smoking, why don’t we do something like that for alcohol? Changing people’s minds and the way they live their lives is difficult.”
The other campaign is getting people to wear seat belts. In the 2012 Community Health Assessment, researchers found that 82.2 percent of La Plata County adults report wearing their seat belts all the time, compared to 83.5 percent of adult Coloradans. That means almost 1 in 5 is driving or riding unrestrained.
Durango and Bayfield residents are more committed to the safety feature, with 92 to 95 percent reporting seat-belt usage on a regular basis.
“That’s still 5 to 8 percent who are not wearing their seat belts,” Driscoll said. “People will tell stories about how they heard about someone who was in a crash and would have been killed if they were wearing a seat belt because the car caught on fire, and they would have been trapped. Take those reports with a grain of salt. Seat belts save lives. Period. Study after study shows wearing a seat belt is the way to survive a crash.”
Liane Jollon, the new executive director of San Juan Basin Health Department, said people need to understand programs like Click it or Ticket.
“People think seat belts are a law-enforcement issue,” she said, “but it’s really law enforcement enforcing a (health-safety) measure.”
Deanna Hitchcock is still wondering if a seat belt would have saved her 16-year-old son, Andrew Rodriguez. He was ejected from a vehicle and died from the resulting head injury in an accident near Lemon Reservoir in May 2012.
“They were in the wilderness, and I’m sure they thought it wasn’t a big deal not to wear seat belts,” she said. “Jacob (Bridges) was an inexperienced driver on soft dirt roads and didn’t know the area, so I also think parents should make sure their kids have some experience.”
Hitchcock says young people don’t understand how many lives they touch and how much a decision like wearing or not wearing a seat belt can affect everyone they know.
“I’ve started noticing how many white crosses there are on the side of the highway,” she said. “You don’t pay attention until it happens to you.”
An act of desperation
Whether it’s because of an underlying mental illness or a sudden setback in their lives, taking one’s own life is the other main cause of death for young people.
Between 2001 and 2012, 26 young people ages 10 to 34 died by suicide in La Plata County, with four of those 18 and younger according to statistician Ken Bol of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. During the last decade, Colorado has experienced steadily increasing numbers of suicide, hitting a record high of 1,053 deaths in 2012.
“There are resources available for individuals and families in crisis,” said Jarrod Hindman, manager of the Office of Suicide Prevention at the state health department. “But suicide can be prevented, and many who struggle with suicidal thoughts go on to lead hopeful, happy and productive lives.”
The Southern Ute Community Action Programs has been involved with local suicide-prevention efforts.
“This is a major issue,” said Peter Tregillus, who works with the program at SUCAP. “SUCAP’s strategy has been to train gatekeepers. Intervention can stop suicidal thought from becoming suicidal action. We’ve trained people to interview and help people get access to help.”
When prevention efforts fail, families and friends are left with a particular kind of grief, one that is “magnified, complicated and isolating, because the survivor must grieve not only the loss, but also the choice that caused the loss,” the brochure for Heartbeat says. A new group formed to help people deal with the loss of a loved one to suicide, Heartbeat is a chapter of a national organization. It began meeting twice a month in July.
“My dad says you don’t get over it, you just get through it,” said Lisa McCorry, one of the three facilitators of the group. She lost her brother, Michael Palumbo, to suicide when he was 29 in 2010. “I’m still healing, too, so I’m not doing this for others, but with others.”
Heartbeat doesn’t take the place of professional counseling, but it provides a place to talk about it where others understand, which McCorry says helps. And because Heartbeat is a national organization, if someone is traveling, perhaps to visit family, and issues come up, they have a place to go.
“It’s so easy to push it down, and it’s hard to find time because everybody’s so proud of their busyness,” she said. “But you’ve got to give grief some attention and work, or it will come up later as anger and frustration. We can’t eliminate grief and make you feel less sad, but we can help transform it so it’s not so crippling.”