March
30th 2008
It’s your misfortune, and none of my own

Posted under: American history, local news, unhappy endings

cowboy-heart.jpgIn 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 Newsit’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. 

12 Comments »

12 Responses to “It’s your misfortune, and none of my own”

  1. James on 30 Mar 2008 at 12:51 pm #

    As Richard White has made clear on more than one occasion, including in his seminal text, It’s Your Misfortune …–much better than Patty Limerick’s more compact The Legacy of Conquest,–westerners’ self-identity is characterized by a highly developed sense of their own independence, yet no region has benefited more from Federal spending, indeed if not for huge US government appropriations for farmers, miners, dams and irrigation projects, military establishments, rebuilding Los Angeles after seasonal fires and floods take out entire subdivisions, and such recreational facilities as Yellowstone Park, the west would remain largely uninhabited except by a few Indians, vaqueros, and prospectors.

    Perhaps the pressures of living with self-deception works its way into the western psyche in ways that contribute to self-destructive tendencies.

  2. Historiann on 30 Mar 2008 at 1:20 pm #

    You said it James–not me! I might phrase it a bit more kindly, along the lines of:

    Perhaps the cultural myth of the rugged individual rests uneasily on people who rely disproportionately on the largess of the federal government. For those who can’t make a living without government aid, this dependence may exacerbate self-destructive tendencies in those who are predisposed to depression and mental illness.

    And, of course, this “rugged individual” is not a genderless person, he’s a man, right? I wonder what the gender breakdown is for Western suicides–if they’re predominantly male or female. Ring’s article doesn’t specify where he got his data, or what the breakdown is along gender lines.

  3. mary on 30 Mar 2008 at 4:58 pm #

    I also wonder if weaker and family and ethnic ties in the West as opposed to other parts of the country contributes to this phenomenon. Thats my hunch, as thats been my experience, I wonder if historiann or others have seen data that supports this?

  4. Historiann on 30 Mar 2008 at 5:48 pm #

    Mary–Historiann is not a U.S. Western historian! (Perhaps one will chime in in this thread?) I refer you to the books by White and Limerick cited above. But, I wonder if sociology or anthopology might help as much as, if not more than, history in answering some of your questions about families and ethnic groups.

  5. James on 30 Mar 2008 at 6:10 pm #

    Historann, that’s too academic for a Sunday afternoon. Still you make a point; sometimes I shoot from the hip first, then think about tact. My abode is in eastern Washington where the perception that we lack political power relative to the lib’rals in Seattle looms large, despite the grossly disproportionate (in our favor) per capita spending on eastern roads by the state government.

    Mary,
    I don’t know ’bout “weaker” ties to family, ethnic, or other groups. Some of the folks I know have been living in the same place for 10,000 years. My family are immigrants–I’m 4th generation American West, 2nd Washington state. I see my kin plenty, but we leave our guns locked up during the gatherings.

    Nevertheless, I think some scholars have noted western mobility as conferring somewhat weaker family and ethnic ties than you might find among Southies in Boston, for example, or New York’s “Little Italy”.

  6. mary on 30 Mar 2008 at 6:51 pm #

    We have had a very different Western experiences than James. I’m a transplant Coloradan form Minneapolis (where most of my extended family still resides) who moved to Colorado Springs as a high schooler. As you may know, the Springs is a highly mobile and suburban community (with three bases, thousands of military families are in and out each year), and very few of my friends had extended family in the area. So I will gladly concede that my experience may be relatively biased there.

    However, I am not one to go down without a fight either. It seems that Washington is not on Historian’s list of states with exceptionally high suicide rates—and its location of the West coast and ample natural resources may have made it more conducive to earlier and permanent settlement than interior states like Colorado and Arizona, which lacked sufficient resources to support large populations until dams were built during the Roosevelt years.

    Having been prodded by the two of you to complicate my question, I wonder what other factors play in here as well—Does a high military presence increases suicide rates? Historiann’s gun theory seems to suggest it would.
    What class of people are committing suicide? My peers in suburban Colorado seemed to struggle with depression to a much greater extent than my peers from Minneapolis. However, this may merely have been a result of the fact that high school generally sucks for everyone…

  7. Historiann on 30 Mar 2008 at 7:05 pm #

    Two corrections, Mary: Washington is included in “the West” in terms of high suicide rates. (Eastern Washington and Oregon especially, are much more like Idaho and Wyoming than the Pacific side of those states. I think of OR and WA like PA and IL in terms of their extremely sharp urban/rural divide.) It’s just one of the 3 Western states, along with UT and CA that taxes people at average or higher than average rates.

    And, although Historiann thinks that gun ownership rates are high around here (maybe it’s just the lib’rul professor types I hang out with?), it turns out that the West doesn’t have a patch on either the South or Midwest, which both have higher rates of gun ownership. (But there may well be pockets, like Colorado Springs, that have very high rates of gun ownership compared to the rest of the region and nation–and a military supercity like the Springs could probably be one of them.)

    But your question about the military and suicide rates is a good one–one I don’t have the data for though, I’m afraid. Military populations tend to be disproportionately male and young, people disconnected from family and other support networks, and heavily armed, which is a volatile mix.

  8. mary on 30 Mar 2008 at 7:59 pm #

    Well, in that case, my apologies to James.

  9. Historiann on 30 Mar 2008 at 8:39 pm #

    Mary–oops, my apologies to you. I re-read my post, and see that Washington wasn’t specifically listed in that first paragraph detailing high suicide rates. But, in Ring’s article elsewhere, everything from Colorado to the Pacific is included in “the West,” so that’s why I was confused. You were right–sorry!

  10. mary on 30 Mar 2008 at 9:00 pm #

    No problems Historiann! I should have read Ring’s article in the first place…But am trying to finish a paper on urban reform in nineteenth-century Europe…

  11. James on 31 Mar 2008 at 8:12 am #

    No apologies needed, Mary. Weaker family ties is a plausible hypothesis worthy of discussion. Although I am partly a western historian (I teach Pacific Northwest and American Indian history), I don’t have the data needed. However, I vaguely recall a few years ago running into data that might support your point.

    The differences in our experiences may be less than I made it seem, although my experiences are far from typical in any sense. My extended family in my town stems from having lived long enough that my nephew is married. At easter dinner I had some fun using the same name to call upon my mother, my partner, my sister-in-law, and my nephew’s bride. Through my own three marriages, I have extended family around here going back four generations, close family that goes back two hundred years in Tennessee and is scattered all over the South, and my two oldest children have kin (no longer mine) that have lived in the Seattle area for nearly a century.

    The urban West, the South, and the semi-rural West are all mine by marriage, while my biological family are true nomadic Westerners. My uncles and cousins are concentrated in Iowa (where my parents were born) and the wetter side of Washington (where my mother was raised), and my siblings range from Puget Sound to Virginia. As an Air Force brat, I lived in many places from Baudette, MN to the Llano Estacado south of CO, but mostly in Washington and Oregon. In contrast to my Nez Perce friends, I utterly lack a concept of extended family–I do wish to stress that such rooted Native communities are endemic to the West and have family and ethnic ties of the sort well beyond the fantasies of the descendants of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia.

    It is easy to generalize about the West, but such generalizations–even when offering a lot of truth–break down. Historiann’s point about guns is a case in point. To learn that westerners do not lead in per capita gun ownership runs against common sense, but “facts is facts”. I doubt that gun ownership is a major contributing cause to higher suicide rates in the region, although it may be easy to blame.

    If the rates are higher in eastern Oregon and Washington than in western Oregon and Washington, then the stereotypes about rural isolation, my extension of White’s note of self-identity self-deception, and even gun ownership all correlate. Finding causes is another matter. Guns offer a means, but so do cars and pharmacies. I would guess that vehicle ownership is higher in the rural west–where one often needs three Fords to keep one running, and driving fifty miles to the grocery store is normal for some folks–than in the rural east, or in the I-5 corridor from Vancouver BC to Portland and Salem OR.

  12. Mark Spence on 31 Mar 2009 at 11:21 am #

    The rate of suicide among American Indians is off the charts, and contributes significantly to the region’s high rates. Alaska also has especially high rates of suicide–not only among Native communities but also the non-Indian population. The latter seems a self-selected population from around the USA and abroad that has a number of traits in common–a) far from community of origin and family (generally by choice); b) escapist; c) “self-medicating.”

    I don’t have statistics to back it up, but removing Indians and Alaska from the total count will no doubt put the West in-line with the rest of the nation–and make irrelevant much of the speculation on this posting.