The American West is known for its dramatic mountain vistas, expansive prairies, and frontier culture. But it also has a dark underside: the highest suicide rates in the country.
Researchers have studied the so-called “Suicide Belt” for decades, but have yet to come up with a clear answer as to why Westerners are so much more likely than people in other parts of the country, particularly those in the East, to kill themselves.
But now three scholars, including Jason Houle, PhD, an assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth College and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholar (2011-2013), have identified a key piece of the “East-West divide” puzzle: residential stability.
Residential stability played a greater role in explaining the West’s higher suicide rate than other factors such as race, religiosity, socioeconomic class, and even gun ownership, they found in the study, which was published in Sociological Perspectives.
“We often think of suicide as an individual act, but the social and physical environment is really an important determinant of suicide,” Houle said.
Put another way, the very traits associated with the West (and romanticized in American culture)—individualism and independence, stoicism and solitude—may also have deeply negative implications for its people.
A Macabre Phenomenon
The association between social integration and suicide is well established. Earlier research has scrutinized the effect of factors linked to social integration, such as divorce rates and church membership, on suicide rates. But it has not closely examined the relationship among residential stability, social integration, and suicide.
Steven Barkan, PhD, Michael Rocque, PhD, and Houle hypothesized that residential instability could be key to understanding the macabre suicide phenomenon in the West.
Areas with high rates of population change, like the West, have more newcomers and temporary residents and, consequently, attenuated social ties and weaker social institutions such as marriage and religion, they write. That, in turn, lowers social integration levels and increases suicide rates, they reasoned.
They also guessed that the West’s low population density might play a role in its high suicide rates, but the findings did not bear that out.
For the study, Houle and his colleagues analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other sources. They cite 2009 suicide statistics from the American Association of Suicidology, the latest data that was available at the time the article was written.
To measure residential stability, they looked at the percentage change in the number of households between 1990 and 2000 and the percentage of the population over age 5 that lived in the same house a year earlier. For population density, they looked at the number of people per square mile. Variables such as divorce rates and religious adherence were taken into account, as were controls for income, age, race, ethnicity, gender, religious identity, and firearm ownership. Data were analyzed at the state level.
The West was identified as a suicide hotbed as early as the 19th century and remains so today.
Data pertaining to 2010 has now been made available by the American Association of Suicidology, and it shows that Wyoming had the highest suicide rate in the country, followed by Alaska, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, South Dakota, and, tying for 10th place, Utah and Arizona. Rounding out the bottom were Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C.
Nationally, 12.4 of every 100,000 people committed suicide in 2010, according to the association. In Wyoming, the rate was 23.2 per every 100,000 people, while in Washington, D.C., it was to 6.8. The suicide rate in the Mountain West was 18.3, about twice as high as the rate in the Mid-Atlantic (9.4), the region with the lowest suicide rate in 2010.
“The Western states stick out like a sore thumb,” Houle said.
Read a post on depression and mortality by Jason Houle on the RWJF Human Capital Blog.
Learn more about the RWJF Health & Society Scholars program.
For an overview of RWJF scholar and fellow opportunities, visit www.RWJFLeaders.org.