The sad truth about suicide is it does exist and is not going to go away, even if it does not get special attention. Wyoming’s high suicide rate is not new; the Equality State has been in the top five states for suicides since 1996.
The high suicide rate not only involves Wyoming but also includes Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico in the lower 48. Sometimes, this group of states is referred to as “suicide alley or the suicide belt.” Alaska also has a high rate of suicides and is consistently ranked in the top five.
What do the states have in common that could possibly link them in such tragedy? Issues such as the high altitude (causing lack of oxygen to the brain), isolation and low access to mental health care as well as the culture of “cowboy up.” The subtle way of denying that nothing is wrong and you just have to keep going, as if your world is fine when your world is crumbling.
Wyoming Health Department spokesperson Kim Deti says the agency spends millions of dollars every year to support community health systems that can provide mental health care on a sliding scale fee to those who need it. Many states do not have this as an option.
The Wyoming Legislature has also considered another piece of suicide prevention: creating a hotline for those in crisis. Presently, Wyoming is the only state in America without an in-state suicide prevention hotline.
Wyomingites who call the national hotline number are rerouted to a handful of call centers, which are out of state. Callers may be placed on hold for as long as half an hour, which is forever for a person considering suicide. Another issue is the person on the other end of the phone isn’t from Wyoming and doesn’t know what resources are available here, as reported by Seth Klamann in a story in the Casper Star Tribune in December.
From 2017 to 2018, Wyoming’s use of the national hotline had increased by 89% from 2,236 calls to 4,234. In each of those two years, more than 800 calls were dropped or unanswered.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States for all ages. There is a suicide every 12 minutes and it takes the lives of more than 44,965 Americans every year. The highest suicide rates are among whites, American Indians and Alaska Natives. Only half of all Americans experiencing an episode of major depression receive treatment, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness. An estimated quarter million people each year become suicide survivors.
Suicide among men is four times higher than among women, the Centers for Disease Control reports. However, women are more likely than men to have suicidal thoughts.
The main risk factors for suicide are a prior suicide attempt, depression or other mental health disorders, drug or alcohol use, family violence of physical or sexual abuse, being in jail or prison, exposure to others’ suicidal behavior, medical illness, being between ages 15-24 or over 60.
States with the lowest suicides are New Jersey and New York, which is 8.3 per 100,000, and California, not far behind at 10.9 per 100,000. Wyoming is 25.2 per 100,000 and New Mexico is 25 per 100,000. It’s thought-provoking to know heavily populated states have a much lower rate of suicide than less populated states.
“The person, who completes suicide, dies once. Those left behind die a thousand deaths trying to relive those terrible moments and understand ...Why?” Clark.
Overfield is an advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Park County. Reach her at (307) 250-2978.