What is behind the high teen suicide rate in rural America?

When a young person with their life ahead of them commits suicide, it has a devastating effect on friends and family members. Death by any cause is overwhelming especially when a young person loses their life but suicide puts a heavy burden on the loved ones left behind.

Dr. Robin L Goldstein, a licensed psychologist, lists anger and guilt as predominant emotions felt by the survivor’s family — anger that they are bereaved and guilt that perhaps they missed noticing a sign of impending suicide or they were not an adequate parent or because of the long list of self-accusatory “I shouldn’t have” done or said this or that.

A study led by Cynthia Fontanella, Ph.D., of Ohio State University, shows that teen suicide rates in rural areas exceed those in urban areas by almost 50 percent.

One might think that life in a rural area would be less stressful than city life. However, risk factors for teen suicide in rural areas include family history, mental health disorders and trauma, which includes bullying, culture and economics of the area. Due to the proliferation of technology, electronic devices and social media, it is now possible to mercilessly bully a person while remaining anonymous. There are sadly, many cases of teens dying by suicide as a consequence of bullying.

ABC News reported that 160,000 students per day do not attend school because they are afraid of being bullied.

Impediments to health care services in rural areas

In rural areas, availability of mental health care is limited and in a small town where everyone knows everyone else it can be intimidating to admit to needing help for a mental illness. The problem is heightened by the existing discrimination against the mentally ill and widespread misunderstanding about mental health disorders in general. Chet Ludlow, suicide prevention specialist at the Central Utah Counseling Center (CUCC) providing mental health services in six rural Utah countries said, “Still, city kid or country kid, fewer than five percent of people who kill themselves actually want to die. They just want to not be hurting anymore.” Psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers rarely decide to practice in small towns; there are simply not enough people needing services to make it feasible. The downside of this situation is that when mental health care is needed in an area with a tiny population, it can be very difficult to access.

A case in point is that of Trenton. Linda Bodily of Hyrum, Utah, lost her son Trenton to suicide. A few weeks before his 18th birthday, he took his own life. He had been experiencing anxiety and depression, and 10 days before his death he attempted to overdose on medication. He was admitted to a behavioral health unit and had been seen by a psychiatrist and his primary care physician. Three days following discharge, Trenton was dead. Linda continues to struggle with her son’s death but determined to help those in need.

Linda laments that there are few resources available to the people who struggle or their families. A simple lack of transportation to and from facilities may be another factor in preventing youths from getting the care they need.

White River Academy is a residential treatment facility offering education and therapy for adolescent boys with behavioral health disorders. Please call our 24/7 helpline to learn more about what we can offer you.

Written by Veronica McNamara.

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