Suicide Rate in Rural Areas Soars

Monday, October 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PAHRUMP, Nev. (AP) — The black smudges around David Jennings' mouth were a hint of how much he wanted to leave a painful life. He told his wife he had wrapped his mouth around his car's exhaust pipe.

Another time, Jennings poured gasoline over his body, intending to set himself on fire.

So, when she found a note stuck in the family's front door — ``Kandi, hope you like the change. David.'' — Kandi Jennings knew.

Jennings was missing for eight weeks until authorities found his body lying against a tree in a field. He had shot himself under the chin.

Jennings' death in rural Nye County contributed to a puzzling national statistic — rural residents kill themselves at a higher rate than those in urban areas. And the West leads the nation.

But why?

In Nevada, home of the nation's highest suicide rate, most people live in the Las Vegas or Reno areas. Beyond that, lonely highways lead to isolated towns surrounded by desert dotted with sagebrush and an occasional brothel.

Minus the brothels, the scene is similar in many Western states. That's part of the appeal of the West and, at the same time, perhaps part of the reason for suicide.

``It has a lot to do with how isolated everything is,'' said Stacy Holybee of Nevada's Crisis Call Center, a suicide prevention agency in Reno.

``There's not a lot of community resources available. It's hard to reach out because it's harder to keep anonymous. If you have any kind of problem that you're facing, you have to go and face people that you see in the grocery store.''

Nye County, where Jennings died, has only 30,000 residents but covers 11.6 million acres of central Nevada, the third-largest county in the nation. In the past two years, 19 residents committed suicide.

Nationally, the adult suicide rate in rural areas was 17.94 per 100,000 people in 1995, the most recent numbers available from the National Center for Health Statistics. In urban areas, the rate was 14.91.

Nevada's overall rate last year was 20.18 per 100,000, almost double the national rate of 11.31 in 1998, the most recent figure available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rural rate was 25.63, compared to 18.91 in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas and has two-thirds of the state's population.

The West as a whole had 12.95 suicides per 100,000 people in 1998. The South was second with a rate of 12.12, followed by the Midwest with 10.51 and the Northeast with 8.89.

Researchers are just beginning to explore the reasons for the West's high rate.

``There is a thought that the frontier personality may be more accepting of suicide,'' said Dr. John Fildes, one of the leaders of Nevada's suicide prevention effort. Factors might include easy access to firearms and a preference for privacy.

Two years ago, the CDC set up the Suicide Prevention and Research Center at the University of Nevada School of Medicine in Las Vegas, where Fildes and other researchers have been concentrating on the high suicide rate in the West.

So far, answers are few.

``We really just don't know,'' said University of Nevada-Reno associate professor Bill Evans, who teaches human development and family studies.

Among those who helped establish the suicide center was Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who grew up in Searchlight, a town of about 200 people southeast of Las Vegas. His father killed himself almost 30 years ago.

``Obviously the facts are pointing toward this rural living not being all it's cracked up to be,'' said Reid.

The region's isolated nature brings more problems — setting up clinics in rural areas, attracting counselors to lonely towns and getting enough money to keep the clinics running.

``We have difficulty recruiting and retaining qualified staff ... it can be isolated because of the nature of rural Nevada,'' said Dr. Larry Buel, director of the state's rural mental health clinics.

Four of Nevada's 17 counties don't even have mental health clinics and residents who want help must drive to an adjacent county, a trip that can take more than 2 hours.

William Crider spent only a year as director of the Pahrump Mental Health Center in Nye County. He left in August, saying he didn't have enough money to operate effectively.

``Nye County is larger than most states. The funding is lacking,'' he said.

David Jennings, 42, never went to that clinic. He never told anyone of his thoughts of suicide. A failed business, a lost job and bankruptcy proved to be too much. He killed himself in January, leaving a wife and three young daughters.

Kandi Jennings, 30, realized there were signs of troubles in their 13-year marriage, but she didn't know how to handle them.

``He came out to Pahrump to get away,'' Kandi said, running her fingers across a quilt that read ``Families are Forever.''


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