Wyoming, Idaho and Utah have some of the highest suicide rates in the nation. Other than Alaska, which has the highest rate of suicide in the nation, the intermountain west tops out the statistics. “In the United States, suicide was responsible for 44,193 deaths in 2015, which is approximately one suicide every 12 minutes (Center for Disease Control (CDC) data).” Rural communities have much greater numbers of suicides per capita than larger urban areas. “The gap in suicide rates between rural and urban areas grew steadily from 1999 to 2015 (CDC).” The reasons given are less availability of counseling and other resources, higher rates of poverty and the availability of guns. “It has even been suggested that higher altitudes contribute,” stated Shawn Tobler, LCSW. In the states with long winters and little sun an absence of Vitamin D3– which humans need sun to make–also contributes. We know a lot about suicide but not enough to always stop it.
Suicide does not only affect the one who dies, but that person’s friends and family as well. “These suicides hit very close to home. The adrenaline rush gets you through but then there is a lot to think about afterward. It is a lot of emotional baggage to carry. Police tend to say, ‘Nothing takes the bark off my tree’ but this is simply not true,” states Chief Russ Roper. In addition, the children of people who kill themselves have a far greater likelihood of killing themselves. “Two years ago my life was turned upside down…It’s a horrible nightmare that you never wake up from,” said a family member of a person who died by suicide. Family members left behind are ashamed to explain what happened, and confused because often they are not certain what occurred. How do you explain what happened when the last you knew, your friend, husband or brother had a great time camping with his friends and then he took his .357 and shot himself? How does anyone make sense of this? What happened? The death echoes for generations, echoes with questions, confusion, sorrow and rage.
My great grandmother homesteaded a ranch in the late 1800’s. She was a hard woman, the term “ate nails for breakfast” could have been written for her. Her husband was a miner, who died in a not so uncommon mine collapse, leaving her with three small girls and no real source of income. Her journey from his death to her running cattle on her own spread involved a lot of difficult choices.
Many of the people in the intermountain west come from such a background. No one talked about feelings (whatever they were); life was too demanding. There were cattle to feed, calves to pull and children to raise. The vast struggle to survive the often harsh winters, dry summers and high altitudes resulted in physical demands that left the issue of how one felt outside the door. Getting drunk on a rare occasion might relieve some tension but routinely life was work, family, church and community. If there was a loss, the death of a family member, the end of a relationship, a conflict with a child, there was little encouragement to talk about it or address the emotions involved.
Fast forward to 2018 and it is a far more complicated world for people. As high school counselor Cameron Crane, LPC said, “Life is different for kids today.” In many ways it can be overwhelming. While survival does not demand fetching water from a hand dug well and does not involve the risk of exposure to diseases for which there is no cure the world today has different and very challenging demands. Many people who take their own lives have backgrounds steeped in stress, abuse, poverty, domestic violence, and inconsistent parenting but none of this has to be present for depression and anxiety to make life unlivable. Shaky economic and environmental futures, college debt, high school shootings, the perceived need to be perfect, all imperil young people today. The demands get steeper with each year. All of these demands come with stress which has physical and emotional consequences. One of these consequences is suicide.
So what do people do facing stress, depression and anxiety? The bumper sticker “Cowboy Up” is familiar to anyone in Bear Lake. The ethic of Cowboy Up spells out what a good guy (or gal) is supposed to do: handle it yourself, say nothing, and don’t reach out for help. For a person living this value system it is important to not talk about what hurts emotionally, to not own up to sorrow, loss, loneliness and isolation. It is quite okay to get angry but in the realm of emotion, well, that is about it. “It’s a sadness and illness that no one wants to talk about. You’re kind of degraded if you have depression,” stated Tiffany Parker, a Bear Lake resident. Giving words to loss, talking about uncertainty, ambivalence and confusion is not among the allowable set of realities for many people in the rural west.
However here’s the reality: Cowboy Up was never the truth. To survive in the 19th Century you needed the help of your neighbors. Raising a barn by yourself is a near impossible task, even with today’s technology. John Wayne was an invention of Hollywood, like Wolverine, Superman and all the rest of those who are invincible. Attempting to be invincible leads to depression and this is the core of it: depression leads to death. It might be a death involving coronary health disease, diabetes, or cancer, all of which are linked to unresolved and unrelenting stress (read anxiety and depression). The expected lifespan of Americans is actually decreasing in a country that is technologically advanced medically. We are dying of stress-related diseases. The rate of suicide is going up. For some to Cowboy Up means to die young, not addressing what hurts has horrible and final consequences.
In the west there are a lot of guns. Guns are lethal and quick. Cameron Crane, LPC Shawn Tobler, LCSW and Selanie Senone Leavitt, FNP all made essentially the same statement. “I don’t want to get rid of guns but lock them up.” In an impulsive moment a gun is just too darn quick. Impulsive behavior, guns and alcohol are a mix that often results in death. “A total of 34 patients were admitted to the hospital with wounds inflicted in suicide attempts, 29 were alcoholics. Of these, 26 were intoxicated at the time of the suicide attempt (Demmie G. Mayfield, MD, Dan Montgomery, MD, JAMA).” The numbers of people who die of suicide while intoxicated are high, which begs the question: would they have died if they had been sober? Or would they have talked with a friend, called for help, or simply turned on Netflix?
With many who die by suicide there are warnings, people give away their possessions, write letters to loved ones, say goodbye in some way. Both Cameron Crane and Shawn Tobler make the statement that if they see these things happening they call the significant people in the home to make sure guns are locked up and all lethal means are out of reach. In other words, with these kinds of warnings, take it seriously. Anya Anthony a PAC who has worked in the emergency room stated, “If you have persistent chest pain you go to the ER. If you have persistent suicidal thoughts, get help.” This is not a situation to tough out. The odds are just too high that it will kill you or someone you love.
We have help in Bear Lake. Talk with someone; go to the ER if you think you are going to kill yourself. If your friends are depressed, ask them, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” Don’t avoid the issue. This is not a subject to avoid. If you are in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Get help!