« Return to this article

Know the West

Breaking the silence of suicide


Why is High Country News writing about mental illness and suicide?

Many of you are probably asking yourselves that question right about now. After all, suicide has nothing to do with public lands, natural resources, endangered wildlife or environmentalism. And of course it has nothing to do with Western culture.

Or does it?

The West's inhabitants, according to statistics, have an extraordinary propensity for craziness and killing themselves. Western states hold some of the top spots for rates of serious psychological distress and depressive episodes, but Westerners are among the least likely to seek treatment. Meanwhile, the nation's top 10 states for suicide rates are in the West. Statistically speaking, people in the Interior West are one and a half times more likely to kill themselves than people in the nation as a whole. And if you're a Montanan, you're twice as likely to pull the trigger. (Most people use guns to end their lives.)

But most Westerners don't need statistics to tell them this, because, like HCN Senior Editor Ray Ring, they've experienced mental illness or suicide firsthand.

I first encountered it back when I was very young, but I can still remember my parents' hushed discussions about the tragic event: On a summer's evening, just a few fields away from where our great-grandparents had homesteaded decades earlier, my second cousin went into a barn and shot himself.

Years later, a guy I went to high school with blew himself away as he drove off a mountain pass, just to make sure; there was the genius artist and friend of my father's who died by his own hand out on the fringe of a bean field in southwest Colorado; the gentle non-motorized activist who wandered off into the San Juan Mountains, never to be seen again. The only common thread running through this list, and the other suicides I've known, is their Western-ness. All these people were either natives of the rural West or had spent most of their lives here.

Western states have had high rates of self-murder since homesteading days. On the edge of the mountain town where I used to live sits a bucolic cemetery. Of some 3,000 graves scattered among daisies and aspen trees are at least 60 suicides: prostitutes who offed themselves with morphine, miners who intentionally dynamited themselves, a banker who shot himself, and his brother who drowned himself four years later. Like it or not, it's buried somewhere in our culture, this horrible urge to end ourselves.

In my personal experience, these are things we don't talk about much. My family, rooted in the rural West, is a pretty quiet bunch. Even the most gregarious keep their sorrows secret, and at least one family friend ended his life in part because of this silence, I believe. I suspect most other Westerners share this silence to some degree or another.

Finding the seeds of our madness may be impossible. Human behavior is mysterious, and defies statistics and trends. But Ray, in a deeply personal way, sheds some light on the phenomenon of Western craziness and suicide. It's certainly a different story for HCN, but I believe it's an important one, too. Thanks, Ray, for writing the story. Most of all, thanks for breaking the silence.