Troubling Study Finds U.S. Suicide Rates On The Rise, Especially In Rural Areas

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Suicides in the United States are happening more and more frequently, especially in rural areas. Those are the disturbing findings from a new study conducted at Ohio State University that also highlighted a number of potentially contributing factors, such as lack of insurance and the prevalence of gun shops in certain areas.

The researchers evaluated national suicide data collected between 1999 and 2016, then created a county-by-county estimation of suicide rates among all adults between the ages of 25-64. In that time period, suicide rates rose an astonishing 41%; from a median of 15 suicides per 100,000 county residents in 1999 to 21.2 in the last three years of analysis.

It was noted that suicide rates were at their highest in less-populous counties and in areas where people have lower incomes and diminished access to resources. For example, between 2014 and 2016, there were 17.6 suicides per 100,000 people in large metropolitan counties, noticeably lower than the 22 suicides per 100,000 people recorded in rural counties.

In urban areas, the counties with more gun shops had higher suicide rates. The highest suicide rates in the country were mostly in Western states, including counties in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Appalachian states like Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia also had some counties with very high suicide rates, along with some Ozark counties in Arkansas and Missouri.

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“While our findings are disheartening, we’re hopeful that they will help guide efforts to support Americans who are struggling, especially in rural areas where suicide has increased the most and the fastest,” says Danielle Steelesmith, lead researcher and postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, in a media release. “Suicide is so complex, and many factors contribute, but this research helps us understand the toll and some of the potential contributing influences based on geography, and that could drive better efforts to prevent these deaths.”

Unfortunately, U.S. suicide rates continue to rise despite a 2015 national prevention initiative that had aimed to reduce suicide rates 20% by 2025. As of now, that goal doesn’t seem to be attainable.

Researchers are hopeful that the trends and patterns they’ve uncovered will be used to help shape future suicide prevention measures.

“For example, all communities might benefit from strategies that enhance coping and problem-solving skills, strengthen economic support and identify and support those who are at risk for suicide,” study co-author Cynthia Fontanella comments. “The data showing that suicides were higher in counties with more gun shops – specifically in urban areas – highlights the potential to reduce access to methods of suicide that can increase the chances an at-risk person will die.”

Another factor associated with increased suicide rates in rural areas was “deprivation.” Deprivation is a blanket term used by researchers to refer to a number of characteristics common to rural areas such as high unemployment, low education, and high poverty rates. The research team say that individuals living in rural areas simply don’t have the same opportunities that others enjoy, forcing many to rely on jobs that do not provide any satisfaction or stimulation.

“In cities, you have a core of services that are much easier to get to in many cases. You may have better access to job assistance, food banks and nonprofits that might all contribute to less desperation among residents,” Steelesmith says.

The research team recommends that rural communities encourage residents to get more involved in the community and familiarize themselves with local support resources.

The study is published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

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