Jackson Hole, WY News

To onlookers, Stephen Kapelow had everything going for him.

He had a great relationship with his wife, two beautiful children and a nice home.

During his lifetime, he had a real estate company that was worth $500 million. He was a rock-and-roll promoter whose company produced the New Orleans Pop Festival in 1969 and the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1971.

He bounced back from bankruptcy protection he sought for five of his companies in the 1970s.

He even tried to develop a living history museum in Teton County that would have detailed Western life through reenactments.

But Kapelow also was a troubled man who suffered from depression, and in September he became one of a growing number of residents, mostly white men over the age of 30, who have committed suicide. As such he contributed the county's rising rates, now alarmingly high, according to the Teton County Suicide Prevention Coalition, which has been tracking numbers in recent years.

"What's happened in the last year is certainly a much, much larger increase in suicide, and the vast majority were local people," said Deb Sprague, executive director of the Jackson Community Counseling Center and a coalition member. "They've been mostly people who have been very much a part of the community."

Because the state only has statistics as recent as 2002, the coalition has been tracking numbers through police and sheriff's reports. It found that the county's rate has grown to four times the national average and twice the Wyoming average, as compared to data from 2002. From January 2004 to June 2005, one person committed suicide every seven weeks in Teton County.

"That demonstrates a pretty large increase over the previous few years,"Sprague said. "Traditionally, Teton County hasn't necessarily been one of the highest counties in the state."

If today's figures are compared to the 2002 list for Wyoming counties, Teton County's suicide rate would be highest in the state that led the nation in per-capita suicides that year, the coalition found.

Aside from committing suicide during the same time frame, there are few other similarities among the people who have committed suicide in recent years. Some had large families. Some didn't have many loved ones. Some were wealthy, while others were not. The following is a list of some of the suicides the News&Guide has reported in recent years:

- Two weeks ago, on Feb. 23, longtime valley iconoclast Will McCloud, 60, was found dead after apparently hanging himself in a storage shed in which he had been living.

- Just before the New Year, a 43-year old Wilson family man shot himself near the Lower Slide Lake parking area. He was found after his family reported him missing and left behind two young children.

- On June 13, 2005, a 66-year-old, well-known Jackson Hole photographer shot himself on the National Elk Refuge. Investigators believe he rode his bike there. He was found by a passerby with a note in one of his pockets.

- In March, Barbara Boman, a 46-year-old Buffalo Valley resident, was found dead in her vehicle from what authorities believed was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.

- In January 2005, longtime resident and silversmith Hilry Leberfeld, 53, shot herself in the head.

- On Nov. 19, 2004, Ronald Hanlon, 37, was found in his home with a gunshot wound to the head.

Their deaths have left many residents coping in the shadows.

"I, so many days, look up to the sky and say, "You better be having a really good time up there because it's hell down here," said Loren Kapelow, 45.

Kapelow's husband, Stephen, shot himself in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun in September. He was 64, and it was his fifth time attempting suicide. The couple would have celebrated their 16th wedding anniversary last week.

Checking out

"He got it easy," Kapelow said. "He got to go check out. But the survivors still have to deal with the emotions. If you've got somebody, anybody in the world who cares about you, don't do it."

Kapelow said her husband had everyting to live for. Nonetheless, he also had clinical depression. The 52 bullet pieces from the first attempt at suicide in 2002 left him with brain damage and with no ability to see that suicide was wrong.

"Every single time he failed, he was grateful he failed," Kapelow said. "This time he succeeded, so it left me with this overwhelming guilt. It was as intense as the love."

After his death, Kapelow's wife went through emotional stages, including shock, guilt, sadness, anger and loneliness. Now she realizes there was nothing she could have done to save him.

"Mental illness is a fatal illness, just like cancer," she said.

Six months after losing her husband, Kapelow said she hopes talking about her experience could help others.

"My life is an open book," she said. "If I close that book, then it's like saying I'm not going to help somebody else. ... I think that if people don't talk about it, if we make it taboo, then how are we going to help each other? How are we going to help each other heal?"

Suicidal thoughts and attempts may be more prevalent than people think. Since March 2003, the Jackson Police Department and Teton County Sheriff's Office have responded to 90 calls related to suicidal subjects.

Police Detective Roger Schultz said some of those calls were self-reported, while some were from family and friends. Some were serious while others were unfounded.

One of those was Summit High School student Stephanie Stickney, 15. Stickney tried to kill herself the summer before she entered the ninth grade in 2004. She had been having trouble with friends, and late one night, after her father was asleep, she took pills and cut her wrists.

"The night it happened I knew something was up," said her mother, LaWahna. "The phone kept ringing, and I just figured it was the same kind of stuff."

Stephanie had been arguing with friends who were stirring trouble between her and her boyfriend. This night Stephanie had had enough.

Stephanie told the callers she was going to kill herself, and they called the police. LaWahna saw cop cars pull up to her house with flashing lights.

"I could barely get to the door before they busted through," she said.

Stephanie then came upstairs and admitted her attempt to officers. Drowsy from the pills, she had to spend the night at St. John's Medical Center and see a counselor the next day.

Hopeless feelings

"It was shocking," LaWahna said. "I didn't have any idea what she was doing. I thought, "How did it get this far without me really knowing what was going on?"

Stephanie said she felt hopeless that night.

"It's depressing," she said. "You don't want to deal with anything anymore. You are just are so done. I guess that's the best word to describe it."

Stephanie said she is better now that she has different friends, though she still checks in with a counselor every so often.

LaWahna said she worries for other children.

"Kids are so hard on each other," she said. "They can be so cruel, picking on each other all the time. If someone doesn't have the resources to handle all that, then what do you do? Words hurt; it's not just hitting."

Teton County School District has bullying prevention programs and in 2004 became the first district in the state to adopt a suicide prevention policy.

The county coalition, which received a $10,000 grant, is trying to do its part by increasing support for residents. Organized during the spring of 2003, it is comprised of Counseling Center staff, public health workers, school district employees, police officers, mental health practitioners, hospital staff, social workers and community residents.

It also has implemented a suicide awareness and prevention campaign. Its single goal is to reduce the risk and rate of suicide in Teton County among all age groups and cultures.

The group will hold a youth suicide program at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Jackson Hole Middle School (see box).

Sprague says there isn't one thing causing the increase in suicide deaths. There are a number of risk factors, including mental illness, economic stress or chronic health problems.

"For a lot of families, [suicide] really does feel like it drops out of the sky," Sprague said.

It also could be the result of an impulse. Sprague said she speculates "but has no proof" that the access to guns can make it easier to kill oneself.

Mark Houser, also a coalition member, said the rate could be the result of Western culture, which teaches "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and dealing with issues yourself."

That mentality is a characteristic of people who live here, said one woman whose husband committed suicide. She asked that her name and the specifics of her story not be used.

The woman said she now realizes characteristics that raise a red flag. He husband once told her: "Give me all the physical challenges, any physical pain, I will find a way to handle it. I cannot handle emotional pain.

Though she never recognized his comments as suicidal at the time, in retrospect she sees them in a new light.

"Once he made a decision it was set in stone," she said. "He was very deliberate. He was a perfectionist. I have been learning that perfectionism plus depression is a loaded gun."

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