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Kansas Suicide Rates Are Climbing, Especially In The State's Most Rural Areas

GARDEN CITY, Kansas — The number of suicides in northwest Kansas increased by more than half in recent years.

Twenty counties in the region saw suicides climb by 57% from 2014 through 2018.

That jump comes in a part of the state where people already die by suicide at a higher rate than in the rest of Kansas.

In Kansas “frontier” counties — places with fewer than six people per square mile — about 26 people a year out of every 100,000 die by suicide. Statewide, Kansas sees fewer than 18 suicides per 100,000 people, according to a report by the Kansas Health Institute

And overall, Kansas had 555 suicides in 2018, up 2% from the previous year. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment said the 2018 suicide rate was the highest in 20 years.

Nationally, suicide has been on the rise since 1999.

“Suicidologists have indicated that a combination of factors have increased the risk of suicide,” said Andy Brown, commissioner of behavioral health services with Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services. They include, he said, “growing isolation among Americans, greater economic pressures, and increases in untreated mental illness.”

Brown said access to firearms and opioids adds to the chances of suicide.

“Suicide risk is highest when people feel like they are a burden on others, feel outcast or isolated from others, and have ready access to lethal means,” he said.

Mental health professionals say rural parts of Kansas are home to several stress factors. They’re certainly geographically isolated. And both the population and the economy of much of rural Kansas have been in decline for generations.

“Social isolation is a concern, particularly in very rural areas of Kansas,” said Kaley Conner, marketing coordinator with High Plains Mental Health Center in Hays, Kansas. “Statistically, the use of alcohol or other substances also can increase suicide risk, as can chronic physical illness or pain and mental illness.”

Recent years have seen ups and downs in farming, which still plays a large role in the western Kansas economy. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention retracted a report in 2018 suggesting suicide is higher among farmers than any other occupation. But the CDC still concludes that farmers suffer a higher suicide rate than most workers. 

JoEllyn Argabright, a family and consumer science specialist with Kansas State University research and extension in Colby, Kansas, is part of a third-generation farming family in Rawlins County. She said long hours — her husband works an average of 100 hours a week — combined with financial stress is burdensome for farmers.

“Farming is a very dangerous operation,” she said. “You not only face financial challenges, constraints on time and finances, but farmers are typically expected to be specialists across the board.”

If you need help, call the High Plains crisis line (800) 432-0333 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255.

Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @Corinne _boyer or email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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