When people think about factors that cause mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, they usually consider environmental issues, like a chaotic home life, or genetic concerns, like a family history of a psychological disorder. What people may not realize is that another environmental issue, altitude, could be positively linked to depression and substance use.
Altitude, or height in relation to sea level, can have a drastic impact on a person’s physical health. For some time, experts have been studying the influence of high elevation on people who are permanent residents as well as those who are only visiting these areas.
Interestingly, high altitude could have either a damaging or protective influence on a variety of health conditions. Living at a high altitude seems to impact physical conditions like:
Visiting a high altitude after flying or driving into town can lead to negative outcomes over the first hours and days. The effects of altitude illness can feel like a hangover and include symptoms like:
Experts are unsure of the exact reasons why, but they believe it may have to do with:
Although the effects of high altitude on physical health creates mixed results, the effects of high elevation on mental health are clear. High altitude will trigger a brief benefit followed by an enduring set of risks.
When someone is exposed to a higher elevation in the short-term, they will likely experience a period of sudden and strong happiness called euphoria. This mood boost comes from a flood of a chemical called dopamine in the brain, caused by the lower oxygen concentrations in the air.
These differences in oxygen levels release more dopamine but lead to lower levels of another chemical in the brain, serotonin. Serotonin is strongly linked to mood, sleep, and well-being.
Serotonin helps keep strong emotions in perspective. When serotonin is reduced due to higher elevations, a person could experience more powerful sadness, grief, worry, confusion or despair. With lower levels of serotonin, a person could be prone to higher levels of depression, anxiety and suicide.
High altitude is not the only issue affecting the mental health and well-being of people in Colorado. Coloradans are now managing the elevation in addition to other stressful factors affecting the region like:
The factors can accumulate to weigh heavily on an individual or even a whole community. These added stressors only intensify the unwanted effect of decreasing serotonin levels.
Recent mental health statistics for Colorado paint a picture of a state in distress and in dire need of additional support and services. According to data compiled by the Denver Post:
The situation is no better for teens in Colorado. Suicide rates have risen by 58% in only three years. Suicide is the cause of death in one out of every five Colorado adolescent deaths.
Places like Colorado offer tremendous scenic splendor, opportunities for outdoor recreation and an active lifestyle, but due to a variety of factors including high elevation, the state also has secured its spot in the “Suicide Belt,” a term used to decribe states with similar suicide problems. To combat this problem, residents can take simple action steps to control and prevent symptoms of depression.
Some of the best coping skills include:
If you’re in need of help managing symptoms of depression and addiction, contact The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake. Our compassionate, expert staff understand the specific risks and challenges that come with living at high elevations and can provide treatment customized to your unique needs.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.