JEFFERSON-Ashe County is known for its picturesque views, countless recreational opportunities and a myriad of wildlife that has made it a travel destination for visitors from all over the world.
This once secluded corner of the state that was once, perhaps, mockingly referred to as the “Lost Province” has since carved itself a definitive place in the lexicon of any outdoors enthusiast looking for an escape.
Even if you didn’t crave the cool mountain air of the Blue Ridge, you might have heard of Ashe County for its bounty. West Jefferson is one of the few places in the world where you can find the production of Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew that still relies on a base of pure cane sugar. The Ashe County Cheese Plant, which is the oldest in the state, attracts busloads of visitors on a daily basis to see cheese made up close and to snap a photo with the plant’s iconic metal tanks cleverly disguised as spotted bovines. Several locally grown Christmas trees have even graced the White House, further solidifying the county’s claim to fame.
Despite all these familiar references that have helped drive tourism locally, as well as transforming the once sleepy manufacturing town of West Jefferson from a loop in the rust belt to a must see destination, Ashe County has still had its share of black eyes.
Methamphetamine and crystal meth use have stolen several column inches on the front page of the Jefferson Post. At one point in time, the county even led the state in clandestine meth lab busts.
But there’s another demon the county has been forced to come to terms with over the past two decades: the rising suicide rate.
For several years – particularly in the early 2000s – Ashe County has held the state’s highest suicide rate per capita.
Local mental health advocates cited a litany of reasons contributing to the deaths. The stigma associated with mental health, climbing unemployment and access to firearms were just a few of factors that play a part in the county’s suicide rate, they said. Long winters have also been associated with these harbingers of death.
String of deaths
A grouping of public suicides in the summer of 2009 brought the issue of suicide to the forefront locally.
In September, 2009, a a 32-year-old Blacksburg, Va. Man participating in the Blue Ridge Relay took his own life after abruptly disappearing from the race, according to media reports at that time. Residents on Buck Mountain Road last saw the man wandering around the yard and driveway near a house in that neighborhood. After a thorough search of the area, law enforcement soon found his body in the back bedroom of the house with self-inflicted stab wounds. At the time, police said it was one of the most bizarre cases they’ve ever seen.
Another suicide at Mt. Jefferson gave more light to the growing concern. Although neither of these two individuals were from the county, the damage was done in terms of tearing open a wound in the early stages of convalescing
More recently, suicides have continued to leave blemishes on a fragile psyche.
In February 2016, the Ashe County High community was rocked over the apparent suicide of a student. It wasn’t the first suicide that school counselors were faced with as they tried to console students.
Light at the end of the tunnel
With the growing suicide rate has also come a glimmer of hope. Ashe Suicide/Depression Awareness and Prevention has led the charge locally in raising suicide and depression awareness. Several of these members have lost loved ones to suicide. In addition to numerous awareness events, including the “Walking Out of Darkness” event, the group has offered support and comfort to those who’ve lost loved ones to suicide.
On Monday, it appeared the group’s efforts might be paying off.
During a presentation on the Ashe County Middle School health center at the county’s commissioners’ meeting on Monday, officials learned the county’s suicide rate has fallen to 43rd in the state.
Local health professionals cite advantages, such as the school based health center at the middle school, as one of the reasons for the declining rate.
Kudos to the community
Nancy Kautz, former community outreach coordinator for Ashe Memorial Hospital, said it took efforts of the entire community to lower the county’s suicide rate.
“When you are working on something like the suicide rate, it’s not going to b a quick fix,” said Kautz. “It won’t be fixed over night. I’m very encouraged and I think a lot of people in the county need to have a pat on their backs for the work they’ve done over the years. One of those (accomplishments) is the establishmen of the school based health center at the middle school. Martin Little from Little’s Gym has done so much in talking to men about recognizing signs of depression.”
Work by various community partners, such as ASDPAP, has also been a key contributor to the growing awareness movement.
“Several years ago Sherry Goodman instituted the Walk Out of Darkness which gave the message that It was okay to ask for help; the Ashe County Schools have been terrific in arranging for Appalachian State University to bring the ASC program to the High School as well as providing training for staff and teachers,” said Kautz.
The hospital, which facilitated much of this work, was a catalyst for curving this rate, said Kautz.
“Also, several years ago the hospital instituted telepsychiatry in an effort to get timely treatment for patients awaiting psych beds for voluntary and involuntary commitments. Sometimes the emergency department can have the telepsychiatrist assess, and treat the patients and they can go home on medication and not need admission,” said Kautz.
Reach Jesse Campbell at (336) 846-7164.
Community efforts and awareness events have helped lower Ashe County’s suicide rate.