With their piercing light and closeness to the gods, mountains have always been associated with eternal life. In some ancient cultures mountains were regarded as sacred and a place to bury the dead. Their religious significance comes in many forms. Jews, Christians and Islamists all agree Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments in his backpack.
There is a darker, contemporary side of the mountain, a place where people go to kill themselves.
Mountain suicide is a global phenomenon that mental health researchers, forestry officials and those morbid enough to specialize in suicidolgy are trying to figure out. Today’s mountain suicides may be less spiritual and more psychological and physiological. The stats show the higher in elevation you live the higher the suicide rate. Nobody has a definitive answer for these increasing mountain suicides, but a leading theory is hypoxia. Hypoxia robs the body and brain of oxygen especially at high altitude and that could aggravate existing mental health problems, several researchers have found.
A less scientific theory by this author who lives in the mountains at 6,500 feet, but has nothing close to a PhD: on a planet rapidly running out of peace, quiet and nature, mountains are among the final retreats. In a virtual world where some have no actual face or voice contact, the birdsong and wind in your face found in a mountain forest are very real and soothing experiences. Those caressing forces can give some people hope but others are so far out on the precipice that they choose the bleak alternative – cashing out in a wild, spiritual place.
“In our online world there is a need to see faces and hear voices and to coexist,” says Azusa Hayano, a Japanese volcanologist who goes on volunteer suicide patrols at the base of Mt. Fuji, the world’s second most frequented spot for suicide. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is the favorite choice.
Deadly Sea of Trees
The Aokigahara Forest on the Northwest slopes of Mt. Fuji has become the go-to suicide spot in Japan. Since the Japanese economic crisis of the late 1980s the forest has been filling up with mostly middle aged men who couldn’t take the humiliation of their financial free falls. There were 247 suicide attempts there in 2010 and over 100 successes. Perhaps it was the forest and its haunting beauty that convinced some not to end it all and they aborted their suicide mission and chose to live on. Others couldn’t see the future from the trees and draped a rope with a noose and left it all behind. March is the cruelest month for Japanese suicides as it marks the end of the financial year when accounts come due.
Japan has the highest suicide rates among the world’s leading economic powers while Greenland leads the world in overall suicides. A combination of alcoholism, poverty, incest and the all dark/all light seasons are likely contributors. Most Greenlander suicides are teens and they occur surprisingly in summer’s daylight.
Hayano has found 100 corpses in 20 years of walking the forest. He has talked many out of the act telling them they must remain positive. He believes it’s impossible to die heroically by suicide. But Aokigahara has become embedded in the Japanese DNA as a graveyard for the hopeless.
In feudal Japan poor families would take the elderly and sickly young who they couldn’t feed and abandoned them in Aokigahara to let nature take them. With its icy caverns, wild mushrooms, windless corridors and haunting birdsong the forest was historically associated with demons and the ghosts of those feudal abandoned souls. In 1960 novelist Seicho Matsumoto wrote a best seller, “Kuroi Jukai” that intertwined the feudal past with a young lover who commits suicide in the Aokigahara. With few virgin forests left in Japan, those wishing to commit hari-kari have been drawn to Aokigahara and Mount Fuji ever since. The suicide pace has only intensified in the last decade forcing local police to put up signs that read in part; ”Your life is a precious gift from your parents, consider them.”
The deaths have attracted a grisly following. Japan’s underworld kingpins, the Yakuza, send its underlings to scavenge corpses for valuables. Buzzard-like TV crews hover over every move by police on their annual sweep of the forest looking for the demised. A YouTube video on the phenomenon has garnered several million views. I was introduced to it by a male high school student in Connecticut who said his friends were fascinated by the video.
Rocky Life in the Mountains
In the U.S. and Canada, suicide rates are highest in the Rocky Mountain West. Mountain states Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Nevada and Alberta, Canada have the highest rates in their respective countries. Utah had a 70 percent higher suicide rate than other states. Studies in High Altitude Medicine, a respected journal, show a correlation between upper elevations and statistically higher rates of suicide.
Perry Renshaw, a brain imaging specialist at the Univ. of Utah, crunched the numbers and came up with an explanation that is gaining increasing acceptance. His theory: the thin air of the mountain states causes a mild hypoxia that may aggravate existing mental health issues. A year later in 2011 Dr. Barry Brenner at Case Medical Center in Cleveland found that mountain residents had higher obesity levels and sleep apnea that cause depression and when hypoxia is added it could lead to suicide.
Despite the stereotypical images of mountain folk as affluent tanned ski gods or mountain biking mamas, the reality is less attractive. Unemployed former loggers/miners with beer guts are more realistic. Getting by economically in mountain towns is hard on individuals and especially families. There is little work and once the tourist season is over there is little business. Forestry and mining have shut down in many mountain areas. Drinking and hunting are favorite mountain pastimes and the hooch-gun combo often leads to suicide. Throw in lower incomes, high real estate prices, greater isolation and you get the grim picture. Brenner found the suicide rates start going up as low as 2,000 feet above sea level. When Time magazine digested the research it reported, “achieving the mountain high may come at a dangerous price.”
Research in other countries such as South Korea also shows that those living in the mountains had higher suicide rates than flatlanders.
The Altitude Antidote
OK living in the mountains wasn’t the John Denver song you thought it would be. It’s cold, business sucks, there are rednecks in the bars and the roof needs fixing. Are you going to sit in front of the fire staring into the dying embers stewing on your worries? Don’t think so. Get off your butt, start exercising. If you’re already exercising, exercise more. Climb the peak that towers above town and gain a sense of accomplishment. Join a hiking group or a ski club. Form one if it doesn’t exist. If you’re alone get a big dog and walk the mountain trails with Rover. Exercise increases body temperature, releases feel good brain chemicals and distracts you from all your weighty thoughts. Heavy introspection is for alcoholic failed writers. Avoid it. I have.
Since trading in sea level San Francisco for the East Mountains of New Mexico I’ve had plenty of ups/downs and in betweens but never thought once about the grim alternative. I ski cross-country and bird-watch out my back door and my mind is freed from whatever is bugging me. The mountain is my sanctuary and it centers me, brings back a sense of reality. I see life and death daily —dying trees from global warming, road kill from too many rabbits. When we buried our cat in the backyard, a bobcat dug it up and ate the carcass. So be it, that’s the ebb and flow of mountain life and death.
But that’s just me. Other mountain residents have their own views on curing the mountain blues. Mountain Missy is a blogger fighting depression in Sedona, Az. She is a talented photographer who originally moved to Colorado from the Midwest. Her blog on depression offers more help than any hour on a shrink’s couch or some high priced anti-depressive meds.
She blogs in part: “To stop worrying about future events that may or may not even happen. To be grateful for the family I was given because someday God will need them back. To live in this moment and cherish it like it was my last. This is how I want to live. This is how I’m going to get my happiness back and fight this depression once and for all.”
The mountains have both light and dark as well as thin air. Cherish, enjoy, explore them, but be aware of your high altitude oxygen vulnerability. Conquer your inner demons by hiking and photographing the beauty around you. Lock up the liquor and gun cabinets and start breathing large gulps of clean, life-affirming mountain air.