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Rising suicide rates are the highest in rural counties across America

Suicide rates are on the rise in America, and the most elevated risk appears to be in rural areas, according to a new study from The Ohio State University. By conducting a county-by-county analysis, the researchers have identified some of the factors that may be driving the higher suicide risk. 

The investigation was focused on national suicide data from 1999 to 2016. The experts determined that suicide rates jumped 41 percent over this time frame, from an average of 15 suicides per 100,000 county residents in 1999 to 21.2 suicides per 100,000 residents in the last three years of the analysis.

In less populated counties, as well as across regions with lower incomes and fewer resources, suicides were found to be the most prevalent. In urban areas, more suicides were recorded in counties with an abundance of gun shops.

The counties with the highest suicide rates were primarily located in three regions of the country: in Western states, including Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming; in Appalachian states, including Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia; and in the Ozarks, including Arkansas and Missouri.

“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,” said study lead author Danielle Steelesmith.

“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.”

Rates of suicide across the US, Image Credit: Ohio State University

The data included 453,577 suicides by adults 25 to 64 years old from 1996 to 2016, and the most common victims were men between 45 and 54 years old. 

Study co-author Professor Cynthia Fontanella said that suicide prevention can be improved with this new information about patterns of suicide.

“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,” said Professor Fontanella.

“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.”

Other factors associated with higher suicide rates included high percentages of veterans in a county, lower rates of insurance coverage, and “deprivation” such as underemployment and poverty.

Steelesmith explained that long-term and persistent poverty may be more entrenched and the economic opportunities for individuals more limited in rural areas, adding that many rural Americans rely on jobs in agriculture and industries including coal mining.

“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,” said Steelesmith.

According to Professor Fontanella, people who live in rural America might particularly benefit from strategies to promote social connections through community engagement activities that offer opportunities for residents to interact and to become familiar with supportive resources in their area.

The study is published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Main Image Credit: Shutterstock/songpholt

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