In a sad and thought-provoking article in High Country News called My Crazy Brother, Ray Ring writes about the fact that the West has the highest suicide rates in the U.S. He writes, “for suicide, nine of the top 11 states are in the West, a trend that holds year after year, decade after decade. And the degree of the lethal regional difference is stunning: Nevada, Montana, New Mexico, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Oregon range from 19 to 15 suicides per 100,000 people–more than twice as high as New York and Washington, D.C. . . . . Some 8,000 Westerners will kill themselves this year, a hefty portion of the national total of more than 30,000 suicides.” His brother John killed himself in 1993 at age 46, after nearly a lifetime of struggling with mental illness.
The worthy purpose of the article is to urge us to make mental health treatment as much of a priority as other health care needs, and it features photographs from an interesting traveling exhibition called “Nothing to Hide: Mental Illness in the Family,” sponsored by Family Diversity Projects.) But, since the article appears in High Country News, a magazine dedicated to environmental issues in the West, I wish Ring had offered more analysis for why Westerners have such high suicide rates. (Historiann’s first guess is that it must be the high rates of gun ownership out here–but, while household firearm ownership is strongly associated with higher suicide rates, the South is the region with the most heavily armed householders, followed by the Midwest, according to this 2005 Gallup Poll.) The vast majority of Westerners are now urban dwellers, so it’s not the stark isolation of ranch life or mining camps that does it. Ring offers only the High Plains Gothic musings of historian Patricia Limerick, who says that Westerners “won’t admit our sorrows until they become cataclysmic,” but he doesn’t follow up on those comments, or explore their meaning further. (H/t to historian Richard White, whose 1993 book title It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West I cribbed for this post. Said title was itself cribbed of course from the song, “Git Along Little Dogies,” and for all of you living at 4,000-foot elevation or below, it’s “dogies,” not “doggies.”)
Ring also briefly discusses the Wallace Stegner’s 1943 novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain, which hints at an interesting analysis. Stegner’s father was an erswhile farmer and bootlegger who moved his family 20 times in 10 years, and ultimately killed a mistress and then himself in a Salt Lake City hotel in 1939. A character in the novel, supposedly based on Stegner’s father, is described as someone who was perpetually disappointed by his failures in life because “people had been before him. The cream, he said, was gone. He should have lived a hundred years earlier. Yet he would never quite grant that all the good places were filled up. There was somewhere, if you knew where to find it, some place where money could be made like drawing water from a well, some Big Rock Candy Mountain where life was effortless and rich and unrestrained and full of adventure and action, where something could be had for nothing.” To me, Stegner’s description of the Westerner’s attitude really rings true, although I don’t know if it’s necessarily connected with mental illness.
Stegner’s description of a man who expected a life that was “effortless and rich and unrestrained and full of adventure and action” seems to suggest something about Western culture that endures. This is the region of the country that was only opened for intensive development by Anglo-American migrants with massive infusions of federal dollars: the Frontier Army, irrigation, railroads, and federal grants of land, grazing, and mineral rights. Those infusions of cash, water, and infrastructure worked–in fact, the West remains the fastest growing region of the U.S. While Westerners are happy beneficiaries of national tax dollars, they are allergic to payting taxes and claim to be suspicious of the “big government” that won the West for them. All of the Western states (except California, Washington, and Utah) are in the top twenty states with the lowest state and local tax burdens: Colorado (#30), Arizona (#31), Idaho (#35), Nevada (#36), Oregon (#37), New Mexico (#40), Montana (#41), and Wyoming (#42). This suggests that Westerners think that they’re entitled to something, if not for nothing, then at least for less than the average going rate. Perhaps this is because so many people are recent arrivals and they don’t feel rooted in the West (if they ever will), and so many “native” Westerners are resentful of the immigrants, whether they’re from Texas, California, New Jersey, or Mexico, that they don’t feel the need to pay taxes to educate or vaccinate the newcomers’ children. (A popular bumper sticker in Colorado sports the white-outlined green mountains of the old Colorado license plates, with the word “NATIVE” spelled out as an aggressive boast.)
Perhaps the most fragile and despondent among us are caught up in the crush of new migrants, old hopes, and fresh disappointments and can’t see any way out. Communities of new migrants aren’t necessarily stable or supportive, and people cut off from their families and native communities may be prone to despair if their big dreams don’t work out. Then again, they may live for a while on the hope that their luck will change with the next move, and that the next Big Thing will lead them to their Big Rock Candy Mountain. (If you’re interested in contemporary Western issues, especially having to do with the environment, land use, development, and industry, then consider a subscription to High Country News–it’s an excellent publication that reports stories you’ll see nowhere else in either the local or the national media.)
And, sorry about all of the buzzkills at Historiann.com lately–suicide, bullies, the gendered wage gap, and the mendacity of tenure review–you’d think it was still midwinter, instead of a lovely early spring. I promise to lighten things up around here with a little Barbie blogging this week.