Guest Columnist

Rural areas vulnerable to suicides

Candles are lit during an Iowa City vigil in this file photo. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Candles are lit during an Iowa City vigil in this file photo. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

While the highly publicized deaths of celebrities have shocked America in recent weeks, rural areas are suffering the most. Each year, thousands of Americans in small towns take their own lives after suffering — often for years — without adequate access to mental health professionals.

I recently led a research team investigating why people in small town America are dying in such high numbers. In our report, “Rural Mental Health Professionals’ Perspectives on Workforce Issues,” 95 percent of rural mental health professionals surveyed said they can’t meet the needs in their communities.

In addition, 90 percent said it is difficult to recruit and retain qualified professionals, due largely to the inability to pay competitive wages and provide professional development. The majority also reported mental health issues in their communities are not well researched and known, nor is there an accurate assessment of the number of mentally ill people in their area.

Suicide rates are an indicator of a society’s social and emotional wellness, which is probably at its lowest point related to health and wellness. Suicide is now a leading cause of death in the U.S., with firearms implicated in a majority of cases. With guns as a fixture in rural areas, access to death is often easy and quick.

But even if rural Americans had access to mental health facilities, it may not come quickly enough for some. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 45,000 Americans lost their lost their life to suicide in 2016. The CDC suggests that majority of those who died of suicide in 2016 did not have a known mental illness.

Not all the individuals who died by suicide showed clear signs of distress to people around them. Increasing loneliness, relationship issues and high rates of divorce, rising rates of substance and opioid use, increases in chronic disease, poor general health, and financial and legal issues all contribute to suicide rates.

Suicide prevention should be a national priority with schools, worksites, faith-based organizations, communities and individuals. Health professionals also have a key role in addressing mental illnesses.

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Over the last decade at Ball State, we found most American mental health professionals were not adequately trained to prevent gun-related suicides. Mental health care providers said high-risk patients had easy access to guns.

In our studies with school personnel, most did not have the time to assist students struggling with interpersonal violence, another cause of suicidal ideation.

In worksites, harassment and job insecurity are significant contributors to poor mental health.

Prevention efforts focused on youth can reap high benefits. Despite recommendations from national organizations, health care providers find it difficult to screen for depression and anxiety, both of which have been strongly linked with suicides.

It is time our elected officials and leaders of health care organizations examine a system no longer able to serve rural Americans.

In an era when drug use is skyrocketing in small communities, we should re-examine our priorities to stop more people from dying.

• Jagdish Khubchandani is an associate professor of health science at Ball State University.

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