This just came in on August 14, from the online magazine “Care2,” written by Michelle Schoffro Cook.

Although the relationship between high altitudes, whether high plateaus or mountains, is interesting, we need a comparative study of suicide rates in areas in the world, such as the Andes and Tibet, in which poverty conditions do not present such strong cultural contrasts with the lower altitude regions at they do in the United States. Although the article is rightly focused on this one surprising issue, one wonders how these findings jive with the highest suicide rates being young adult males. It is doubtful that there is a biological difference between young adult females and young adult males, or between young adult males and mature males, in terms of their brain capacity to tolerate lower oxygen levels. We have a long way to go before understanding the causes of suicide. Certainly they are as complex and individualized as any other human tendency. Yet altitude could be an important lead.

     In the wake of the tragic loss of Robin Williams, one of the great comedians of our time, and his suicide, it is important to examine why suicide rates are increasing with the hope that better understanding will improve the chances of saving peoples’ lives.

     Sadly, suicide and death from self-inflicted injuries is currently the 14th most common cause of death. According to current increases in suicide rates, some experts believe that in 17 years it will be the 12th most common cause of death. While there are many possible reasons for the increase in suicides, including:  psychiatric illness, mood disorders, and substance abuse, one study found an unusual link between altitude and the incidence of suicide.

     Researchers from the University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, assessed mortality data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and published their findings in the journal High Altitude Medicine & Biology. After examining 2584 counties across the US and suicide rates over twenty years, as well as accounting for various other factors, they found a shocking correlation between suicide and altitude. The higher rates of suicide were found in the counties situated at the highest altitude.

     The researchers concluded that “altitude is strongly associated with suicide rates in the United States. This novel finding is not explained by county differences in demographic factors, income, or geographic isolation.” The researchers found no correlation between other forms of death and altitude.

     An earlier correlation linking suicide to altitude was also found in South Korean counties and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

     The researchers of the High Altitude Medicine & Biology study hope that additional research may help to determine the exact reason(s) for the increased risk of suicide at higher altitudes although they note the possibility of reduced oxygen, brain hormonal changes, and other possible factors. Of course, altitude is not the only factor to consider or address but greater understanding of the precise biological and biochemical workings behind the increased suicide risk linked to altitude may help save lives. In the meantime, perhaps health care specialists will be able to address the altitude factor by encouraging relocation to communities in lower altitudes, oxygen therapy, and increased monitoring of and assistance with people suffering from depression or at high risk of suicide.