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.

Effects of Altitude

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:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Various cardiovascular diseases
  • Some forms of cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Numerous neurodegenerative diseases

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:

  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Experts are unsure of the exact reasons why, but they believe it may have to do with:

  • Low barometric pressure
  • Low partial pressure of oxygen
  • Higher levels of ultraviolet radiation 

High Altitude and Depression

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.

Other Factors

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:

  • COVID-19 and related issues including separation from support systems
  • Wildfires
  • Droughts
  • Economic and financial instability
  • Civil rights upheaval
  • Political unrest

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.

Colorado Mental Health Statistics

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:

  • 870,000 Coloradans were in “significant distress” in 2019, a number that surely increased since the survey due to the events of 2020.
  • In October of 2020, Colorado’s crisis line received 25,000 calls and texts daily.
  • In late 2020, 43% of Coloradans reported anxiety and depression symptoms.
  • Colorado has the highest percentage of adults with a substance use disorder and the third-highest rate of people considering suicide.
  • Colorado’s suicide rate is 22 people per 100,00 residents, more than 50% higher than the national average.

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.

How to Cope

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:

  • Track your symptoms. Of course, not everyone living in Colorado will experience high levels of depression, but the numbers are too great to ignore. Take preventative action like regularly tracking your mood, motivation, energy, sleep, appetite, and other factors related to depression. This way, you can discover issues and take action before the situation worsens.
  • Build a strong network of support. Friends, family, coworkers, religious officials, and other supportive people can act as a safety net to cushion the fall into depression. If your supports seem too few, take steps to bolster your connections. If you feel yourself turning away from loved ones, remind yourself how necessary human connection and contact is and push yourself to reach out to someone you trust.
  • Focus on physical health. Lower serotonin levels are partially to blame for higher rates of depression and suicide, but improving your physical health can help combat this impact. Increasing physical activity, eating healthy foods, and devoting enough time for restful sleep can help regulate chemicals in the brain to stave off depression.
  • Avoid negative coping. When depression grows, people may scramble to find ways to quickly reduce symptoms. Turning towards “easy fixes” like drinking alcohol, using drugs, spending money and having risky sex may seem like a good idea at the time, but they only cover up the depression symptoms and may create new issues for the future. 
  • Seek professional treatment early. Managing mental health symptoms is never something to be delayed or dismissed. If the low mood, poor motivation, low energy, worthlessness, and suicidality linked to depression do not get better with lifestyle changes, professional treatment is the best option. Meeting with a therapist or speaking to a prescriber can offer assessment and care options you may have never considered on your own.

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.

Editor – Nicole LaNeve
Nicole leads a team of passionate, experienced writers, editors and other contributors to create and share accurate, trustworthy information about drug and alcohol addiction, treatment and recovery for The Recovery Village and all Advanced Recovery Systems sites. Read more
Medically Reviewed By – Eric Patterson, LPC
Eric Patterson is a licensed professional counselor in the Pittsburgh area who is dedicated to helping children, adults, and families meet their treatment goals. Read more

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: […]uide (Third Edition).” January 2018. Accessed June 18, 2021.

American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition.” 2013. Accessed June 18, 2021.

Burtscher, Martin. “Effects of Living at Higher Altitudes on[…]: A Narrative Review.” Aging and Disease. December 5, 2013. Accessed June 18, 2021.

Griego, Tina and Greene Susan. “On Edge: Coloradans Struggle with Mental[…]repared to Help Them.” Denver Post. December 6, 2020. Accessed June 18, 2021.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Travel to High Altitudes.” November 18, 2019. Accessed June 18, 2021.

Martin, Bryce. “Longevity: Why There’s More Depression[…]de at High Altitude.” Post Independent. September 23, 2019. Accessed June 18, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with 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 providers.