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The western United States has been given an unfortunate nickname among some mental health professionals: the suicide belt. Among the top ten states with the highest rates of suicide, eight of these states can be found in the mountainous west.

In valley town of Grand Junction, Colorado, high school students and community members have begun to prioritize mental health in an effort to combat these high rates of suicide.

In the span of one school year at Grand Valley Junction between 2016 and 2017, there were seven suicides committed by teenagers.

In response to the devastating rates of suicide among teenagers and adults alike, the district opted to join a suicide prevention program known as Sources of Strength. This was primarily brought on by the consistent efforts of students who hope to make a change in the area.

This program trains peer mentors to recognize signs of struggle within fellow students. It relies on the basis that struggling students are more likely to listen to a peer than a person of authority.

If a peer mentor or other student advocate is able to connect with a student who needs help, they might be able to connect them with other resources or help for their mental health.

And students aren't the only ones taking notice.

Between those aged 10 through 24 in Colorado, suicide is the leading cause of death. The Colorado Attorney General's Office has approved funding for a $2.8 million grant to reverse this grim trend. The funding will be used in order to help pediatric care for mental health and improve the mental health programming for schools throughout the state.

"We have a crisis on our hands, with more adolescents and teens taking their own lives, battling depression and struggling with undiagnosed behavioral disorders. Teachers see it, parents suspect it, friends and classmates know it. It isn’t a lack of caring that’s at issue; it is an unconscionable lack of resources devoted to the mental health of children," claims Attorney General Cynthia Coffman.

It is apparent that the lack of mental health resources is detrimental to the well-being of students and young adults in Colorado. On top of this, the "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" mentality is common throughout the region where mental health is still stigmatized. An estimated four out of every five older people have to take at least one daily medication, some of which are used to treat mental health.

The stigma toward mental health may run deep in this area, but there may be another reason why other areas of the nation are more mentally healthy.

According to a 2014 study, the presence of higher levels of lithium in drinking water led to lower rates of suicide within a monitored population. In fact, areas that received higher levels of lithium have suicide rates that range from 50 to 60% lower than low-lithium regions.

Lithium is a psychiatric drug that primarily treats symptoms of bipolar disorder. However, it's also a naturally occurring component in many soils that can get into our drinking water. Not surprisingly, 95% of Americans live nearby a navigable body of water, one that may contain trace amounts of mood-improving lithium.

Even though our drinking water sources are filtered via a system of reverse osmosis, electrolysis, and linings, trace particles remain. That's how some areas of the United States have mineral-rich hard water compared to other areas, even though tank liners are required in 100% of potable water tanks.

Across the United States, people everywhere are consuming trace amounts of lithium via natural sources. But some may be getting more than others.

So, how does Colorado's lithium ranking stack up?

"In general, in the United States, lithium levels are much higher in the Northeast and East Coast and very low in the Mountain West," claims co-author of the report, Nassir Ghaemi.

"And suicide rates track that exactly — much lower suicide rates in the Northeast, and the highest rates of suicide are in the Mountain West," he concludes.

Combined with the area's stigma against mental health, the higher rates of suicide begin to make more sense for the area. In response to these studies, some are calling for an increase in the trace amounts of lithium found in our drinking water via human intervention.

This type of experiment cannot be implemented on an unknowing population, and the ethical concerns regarding this type of project could keep the idea from gaining traction.

On top of that, newer studies have suggested that these trace amounts of lithium don't really help prevent suicide, at least not in a measurable or profound way.

For now, the work performed by the students of Grand Junction Valley and the Attorney General's office is the push the state needs to begin combating the stigma against mental illness.

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