In the final days of 2020, an 85 year-old resident of Alta, WY, died by suicide. Another valley resident made a plan for suicide by firearm, and tactful intervention by sheriff’s deputies prevented his death.

Idaho has had a troublingly high suicide rate for years. 2018 saw 362 Idahoan deaths by suicide, and 2019 saw 409. (These stats earned the state the ranking of fifth highest in the nation; a list tragically topped by our nearby neighbor, Wyoming.) While it’s too soon to calculate the overall effect of the 2020 pandemic on the state’s number of deaths by suicide, it’s clear that there are many factors that make our community at elevated risk. Awareness of these factors, in combination with the willingness to discuss them openly with friends and family, can quite literally save a life.

Rural communities across America tend to have higher suicide rates than urban areas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research indicates that a few elements fuel this discrepancy. It is often more difficult to find affordable mental health support in rural areas, substance use tends to be more pervasive in smaller communities, as well as increased access to firearms. Add in the financial, social, and emotional stressors of Covid, and it comes as no surprise that some of us are struggling more than we have in years past.

Rural, Mountain Challenges

More sparsely-populated areas across the country tend to have fewer mental health professionals and fewer community resources to assist in offsetting the costs of seeking help. But the Teton Valley Mental Health Coalition works to ensure that no member of our community lacks the support they need due to the price tag.

Visit their website (www.tetonvalleymentalhealth.com) for more information, and to find out how anyone without insurance can be provided six sessions of counseling at zero cost.

While many of us enjoy the solitude that comes with living in the mountains, it can swell into a sense of loneliness, especially as the days are colder and darker. Existing at our latitude means that many of us experience seasonal affective disorder (a.k.a. the ‘wintertime blues’) to some degree. Some of us get less exercise, less sunshine, feel nostalgic for our summertime activities — and that can dampen our mood, too. Add in the new limitations of Covid, and the isolation can feel even more intense. Fewer dinner parties, concerts at the Knotty Pine, and the indoor fitness classes we love contribute to the sense of loss.

Accessibility of Firearms, Alcohol

To be abundantly clear: guns do not cause suicide. Nor does alcohol. But the widespread accessibility of these items is statistically correlated with the Intermountain West’s high rate of suicide. A study in 2018 revealed that over 60% of completed suicides nationwide involved a firearm. In 2020, Idaho had the third highest rate of gun ownership in the nation (behind Alaska and Arkansas): 56.9% of Idaho households own at least one gun. In other words, most anyone in our community could access a firearm with little trouble.

During the course of the pandemic, alcohol consumption across the nation has spiked. According to one study, alcohol purchases in March 2020 were 54% over that of the previous year, while online purchases of alcohol soared a reeling 262%. Again, drinking alcohol does not cause suicide, but drastic changes in someone’s use of substances — alcohol or drugs — can be red flags. When we’re under the influence of a substance like alcohol, our decision-making is impaired and our inhibitions dampened: we can make decisions that our clear-headed selves wouldn’t, including ones that have irreversible consequences.

Other Risk Factors

According to the CDC, risk factors for suicide include: depression, hopelessness, impulsiveness, other recent local suicides, isolation, loss, physical illness, and easy access to lethal methods (like firearms). Other red flags include statements about being a burden, sudden attitude of ‘having found a solution to all my problems,’ or giving away important possessions.

Notice what’s not on the list? Asking someone if they are considering suicide. It’s a common misconception that asking someone if they’re experiencing suicidal thoughts will make them more likely to die by suicide. In fact, it’s the opposite. According to the National Institute on Mental Illness, approaching someone with sensitivity and directness and listening with a caring ear is shown to decrease suicidal ideation. Your courage to speak up and listen carefully can quite literally save a life.

Let’s make 2021 the year that Teton Valley is free from deaths by suicide. As a community, it’s a goal we can achieve if we are brave enough to discuss difficult topics with care and honesty, and find ways to genuinely support one another. Let’s ask “How are you doing?” and really hear the answers that our friends and neighbors give us. Let’s answer truthfully when our loved ones ask us. Let’s be quick to ask for, offer, and accept a helping hand. Brighter, warmer days are on the horizon for us all.