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Why are rural Westerners killing themselves?

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.

Rural health on the frontier

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.

A defining feature of reporter David Wahlberg’s ongoing look at rural health care for the Wisconsin State Journal has been his willingness to look beyond the state’s borders, as with his recent piece on health care navigators in Kentucky.

In his latest installment, he looks to Montana, not just for a model, but for perspective. In Montana, he finds that all rural health challenges are created equally, and that the rural areas of the Mountain West and western Great Plains are so remote that the term “rural health” just doesn’t do their situation justice. Instead, they deal with “frontier health,” where the only hospital in driving distance can’t afford to deliver babies, and hospitals have to fly patients hundreds of miles just so they can have access to adequate blood supplies.

Only 4 percent of Wisconsin residents live in frontier counties. In Montana, that number is 54 percent. Wyoming is even higher. “Frontier” counties are generally considered to be those with a population density of fewer than seven people per square mile. For those interested, the State Journal included a map of such counties alongside the story.