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Rep. McAdams Bill Exploring Link Between Elevation, Veteran Suicides

WEST JORDAN, Utah — Utah Congressman Ben McAdams has focused his efforts on the suicide risk of Utah’s veterans, sponsoring a new bill that would allow researchers to further explore a connection between living in high altitudes and being at-risk for suicide.

The VA High Altitude and Suicide Research Act was passed by the House this week and will now go to President Donald Trump for his signature.

“The veteran suicide rate is one-and-a-half times higher than that of overall suicides,” said McAdams. “We must do everything we can to prevent these tragic deaths and help those who have given so much to our nation.”

For several decades, researchers have examined a heightened rate of suicide in Utah and the Rocky Mountain region. Recently, they’ve also studied a link between living at high altitudes and death by suicide.

Researchers from the Salt Lake City VA Healthcare System and the University of Utah joined McAdams Monday to talk about the legislation at the Veterans Memorial Park in West Jordan.

They said higher rates of suicide have been associated with living at a higher elevation, and the risk was even higher in the veteran population than the civilian population. They hypothesized that lower oxygen levels at higher altitudes increase the risk for suicide.

“We want to better understand that connection so we can better prevent suicide in the future,” McAdams said.

The legislation will enable researchers to conduct unprecedented research in this area, and ideally, develop better treatments.

Utah veteran Chris Goehner served in the U.S. Navy from 2003 to 2006. He deployed twice to Iraq and treated 1,200 trauma patients in seven months during his second deployment.

But he had survivor’s guilt — wondering why he survived when others didn’t — when he returned home.

Two months after coming home, he thought about dying by suicide.

Despite the success he had, he said he still struggles with those thoughts.

“While I have struggled with these issues, it’s an opportunity to be able to say, ‘Hey, I’m not alone in this fight,’” said Goehner.

Now, living in Salt Lake City, nearly a mile above sea level, he understands he may compounding his risk for suicide. So he plans to move to a lower-elevation area.

“I reduced my alcohol because that’s a risk factor,” Goehner said. “Now, in order for me to be able to progress in my career and to ensure my long-term life, it’s going to be best for me to get to a lower altitude, and that’s what I’m choosing to do.”

Both Goehner and McAdams look forward to learning more about the relationship between living at altitude and the risk for suicide.

“There are numerous factors that go into risk of death by suicide. We want to understand what those factors are because the more we understand it, the more we can bring solutions that will reduce the risk,” said McAdams.

The legislation could be signed by the president as early as this week and would provide funding for a three-year study.

Congress passed it as part of a bipartisan package of veteran bills aimed at improving mental health and providing additional support to the VA for reducing veteran suicides.

SUICIDE PREVENTION RESOURCES

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or exhibiting warning signs, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Additional Crisis Hotlines

  • Utah County Crisis Line: 801-226-4433
  • Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
  • Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393
  • National Suicide Prevention Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741-741
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386
  • University Of Utah Crisis Interventional Crisis Line: 801-587-300

Online resources

In an emergency

  • Call the police
  • Go to the emergency room
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