Why are rural Westerners killing themselves?

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Writing for ABC News, Alan Farnham seeks to explain the jump in suicide rates in the rural American West, particularly in Intermountain states such as Idaho, Wyoming and New Mexico.

Historically the suicide rate in rural states has been higher than in urban ones. According to the most recent national data available, Alaska has the highest rate, at 24.6 suicides per 100,000 people. Next comes Wyoming (23.3), followed by New Mexico (21.1), Montana (21.0) and Nevada (20.2). Idaho ranks 6th, at 16.5. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Idahoans aged 15-34. Only accidents rank higher.

Farnham focuses on the Gem State, where suicide rates are rising alongside unemployment and related economic hardship. In addition to economic factors, including cuts to Medicaid funding, and a regional lack of resources for the initial diagnosis of mental illness, local experts point to demographic and cultural factors.

Kim Kane, executive director of Idaho’s Suicide Prevention Action Network in Idaho says other factors explain the high rate of suicide in western mountain states. One is the greater prevalence of guns: In 2010, 63 percent of Idaho suicides involved a firearm, compared with the national average of 50 percent.

She and Garrett also say the West’s pride in rugged individualism can prevent people from seeking help. Their feeling, says Kane, is that they ought to be able to pull themselves up by their mental bootstraps. Idaho is the only state not to have a suicide-prevention hotline.

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