University of Utah researchers are working on a treatment for people who may suffer from depression caused in part by high altitude. Some say this helps explain why states like Utah have some of the highest suicide rates in the country.
People who live at higher altitudes produce less of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin says Perry Renshaw, a psychiatry professor at the University of Utah. And he says high altitude can render antidepressant medications less effective. That’s why U of U researchers are finding a work-around that removes the sensitivity to oxygen deprivation so that people at high altitudes can produce more serotonin and keep it.
“We’re not really taught as psychiatrists to think about how depression is different in different individuals or in response to different environmental factors,” Renshaw says. “While it seems like a no-brainer, these are new ideas for an old profession.”
The Utah Department of Health released a report Thursday that says two people in the state die every day from suicide and 12 Utahns are hospitalized every day for suicide attempts. Half of those who commit suicide use a firearm.
Andrea Hood is the suicide prevention coordinator at the Utah Department of Health. She says there’s nothing the state can do about Utah’s altitude, but it can take measures to better educate people about depression and suicide prevention. The department recently launched a partnership with the Utah Shooting Sports Council for example to provide education around firearm safety.
“If you had a friend who had been drinking, you would hold onto their keys to kind of protect them and be a good friend,” Hood says. “And this is the same thing with suicide prevention. If you have a friend who is going through a divorce or is depressed or just got laid off, or is having a hard time, you could offer to hold onto their guns for a short period of time until they get feeling better.”
Hood noted suicide is a complex issue that cannot be attributed to a single cause or event. But she says state health officials acknowledge that altitude can play a part in depression.