There’s not just altitude sickness; there’s altitude mental illness

Utah is both the happiest state and the state with the highest suicide rate.  It’s a place with the shortest workweek, a lot of church goers, and gorgeous scenery.  However, the altitude may be responsible for the depression that many people in the “suicide belt,” i.e. the Rocky Mountains, feel:

But there’s another side to Utah that isn’t shown in surveys. Despite ranking as America’s happiest state, Utah has disproportionately high rates of suicide and associated mood disorders compared to the rest of the country. In fact, it’s the No. 1 state for antidepressant use. These polarized feelings of despondency and delight underlie a confusing phenomenon that Perry Renshaw, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah investigating the strange juxtaposition, calls the “Utah paradox.”

High altitude results in lower oxygen in the bloodstream, which reduces serotonin levels and increases dopamine levels.  Renshaw theorises that people with preexisting problems will feel worse at high altitudes, and those with more normal brain chemistry will feel happier. The correlation between altitude and suicide rate is striking:

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 2.17.58 PM

I wonder if psychologists and psychiatrists in the Rockies would ever counsel their clients to consider moving to a lower elevation.


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