Thursday, December 22, 2011

Rural suicide

A few weeks ago the town of Emington, Illinois was shocked by a murder-suicide. The county sheriff issued a statement this past Monday stating that Sara McMeen, 30, was the sole shooter of her 29 year-old live in boyfriend, Daniel Warren, and her three children, 10-month-old Maggie, 8-year-old Skyler Lemke, and 7-year-old Ian.

Emington is a small speck of a town with about 117 residents. McMeen and Warren had recently moved into town and their kids were attending the local school. And while events like these don't comport with rural ideals--of happy homes in small towns, where children lives tranquil lives--the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention tells a different story.

On their website the AFSP releases statistics and rural states are consistently in the top ten. So what makes suicide so popular in these states? Part of it could be spending of suicide prevention. Idaho, which recently cracked the top ten, spends among the lowest in suicide prevention. Treatment for depression or any other type of disorder can be very hard to get in a town of 117 people.

And the sources of depression can be exacerbated in small towns. Larger economical effects can have more meaning in some towns. Where the recently unemployed urbanite can go apply for a number of different jobs, the same isn't true for those in rural areas. The lack anonymity can make social situations even more awkward. Consider that in Idaho the second-leading cause of death for boys ages 10-14 is suicide. These aren't boys that are being laid-off from their jobs, these are boys where their social anxiety has gripped their lives. Why? Part of the answer might be their rural culture.

But outside of infrastructure and institutional spending, part of the reasoning could lie in the culture. A big topic in rural studies is rural self-help, the idea that the rural people can do things for themselves. In one vein, this indicates that they would be the last to commit suicide, but in another it might push the issue. Suicide can also be thought of as the extreme version of self-help.

Or consider isolationism. While social scientists often talk about the lack of anonymity in rural environments, there is also a degree of isolation. Growing up in a rural area myself I can tell you that some rural environments can be completely isolationist. Consider one of the accounts of the Emington murder-suicide: one neighbor heard shots and ran outside to see Ms. McMeen holding her baby and a gun. The neighbor then asked her if something was wrong. McMeen replied of course there was something wrong, shot the baby, and then ran away. One article explains that there wasn't a single thing wrong in the children's lives, that they were happy and full of life. The community had no idea.

A recent study called Rural suicide--people or place effects? sought to unravel these same questions. At least people are asking.


Patricija said...

Very interesting post. I too have read about the increased rate of depression found in rural individuals and agree that the other factors you suggest all play some sort of a role in the high numbers of rural suicides. I think in general, America has a pretty bad history of accepting mental health issues. It's taboo to talk about these issues in rural and urban homes. I think if this norm changes, rural communities may benefit the most. While mental health resources are limited in rural areas, rural individuals tend to have a larger support network of family, friends and neighbors. If it becomes more acceptable to talk about these issues, they'll be able to get some support from those that know and love them the most.

Azar said...

What a horrific story. I think that the points you make are all worth consideration and research.

Perhaps another problem is access to help. I always find it surprising how many people I know that are seeking some sort of psycho-therapy or counseling. While many people don't like to talk about this too much, the ones I know who do swear by it. I can't imagine that people who grow up in really rural towns have the same access to mental-health professionals.

JWHS said...

What I find most interesting is the Idaho teen-boy rate. They aren't exactly getting laid-off, so why the high rate? I could only think about social pressure. Which is extremely said if young boys are so depressed with so few resources that suicide becomes their only option.