Montrose County and the Western Slope’s suicide rates are statistically higher than more metro parts of the state, and coroners see reducing access to the autopsy reports of juvenile victims as a means of cutting down on “copycat” suicides.

“We know there are copycat suicides. We’re trying to avoid that,” Dr. Thomas Canfield, Montrose County coroner, said Saturday, during a brief sit-down lunch with Gov. Jared Polis and other elected officials from Montrose County and the City of Montrose.

Last year, the Legislature overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 223, “Concerning the Circumstances Under Which an Autopsy Report is Prepared in Connection with the Death of a Minor May be Released to Certain Parties.”

Although Canfield said the goal was to limit access to the autopsies of juveniles who die by suicide — to reduce the level of detail circulating in public and thereby discourage other kids from making rash decisions — last year’s bill was not written in a way specifically limited to suicides.

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed that bill, stating in a letter he was “particularly concerned by the bill’s broad language limiting disclosure of not only youth suicides, but any death of a minor.”

The Colorado Press Association, of which the Montrose Daily Press is a member, had asked for a veto, saying that public officials would not have been responsible to identify a child whose death is investigated by a coroner, despite the conclusion that such deaths merit an investigation by a publicly funded entity. Additionally, the bill was seen as impeding the public’s right to know about child homicides.

Canfield on Saturday told Polis he and other coroners would like to see a law that allows them to withhold the autopsy reports of children who die by suicide, unless their families grant permission for release, or a court order for their release is obtained.

“We’re almost the suicide capital. We have twice the number of suicides in this area as we do in Denver,” Canfield said, referring to statistical findings.

In September, Canfield also reported 13 Montrose County residents had died by suicide this year. Four were teens or young adults and most of the younger victims had known each other, he said.

Polis asked about access to behavioral health services, which is an ongoing issue for the Western Slope, where there are fewer such facilities and where funding lags.

“That’s one of the things we’re working on with our behavioral health task force. Southwest Colorado is the hotbed. Western Colorado is disproportionately high,” Polis said. A disparity of access to mental health care is one of the big issues, he also said.

Canfield on Monday agreed rural communities have a more difficult time in obtaining mental health support, including in Montrose. He said he is hopeful The Center for Mental Health’s new crisis stabilization clinic will help.

Polis did not commit to supporting a reintroduced bill concerning access to the autopsy reports of juvenile suicide victims.

He signed into law earlier this year a bill that criminalized the intentional online sharing of images of a minor attempting or dying by suicide. The law made it a class-3 misdemeanor to do so with the intent to harass, intimidate or coerce any person/causing serious emotional distress to a person.

Canfield on Monday reiterated his support for a law restricting access to autopsy reports of underaged suicide victims.

“There are some places that do report kid suicides and you get copycats. That’s well documented,” he said.

“It applies to adolescent suicides. The point is, it’s well-documented that publicly talking about kid suicides increases kid suicides.”

Canfield on Saturday told Polis that coroners would still maintain data on suicides. On Monday, he said the issue is restricting information about specific suicides, not putting the overall topic itself under wraps.

Canfield is part of a local task force on suicide prevention and said education is important — but the detailed, victim-specific information contained in autopsy reports is not necessary for that purpose and families of juveniles are entitled to a measure of privacy, he said.

The coroner pointed to the wide support legislators last year gave the autopsy report-limiting bill.

“To get 97 of 100 legislators in favor of something like that is unheard of. We’re looking at another run at that,” he said.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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