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Northern California’s silent suicide crisis: Why rural areas are hit hardest

Northern California’s silent suicide crisis: Why rural areas are hit hardest

Picture of Samantha Caiola
[Photo by Ken Lund via Flickr.]

This spring and summer, I’ll be diving into the mental health crisis in Amador, Calaveras and Mariposa counties — a rural pocket of Northern California with some of the highest suicide rates in the state.

I know from prior reporting that rural areas suffer from a shortage of mental health professionals and affordable resources. This means people experiencing depression, anxiety, isolation and other socioeconomic challenges associated with rural living often suffer in silence.

The mental health advocates I’ve spoken to in this area say there’s simply nowhere to refer people in crisis. There are 24-hour hotlines, but those are designed for de-escalating a crisis, not treatment. People with private insurance have to drive long distances to find psychiatrists and psychologists. People on public insurance can go to the county behavioral health clinic, but it can take weeks to get an appointment.

There are a few promising solutions underway. A new federally qualified health center in Jackson offers some mental health resources. The National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Sierra Wind Wellness and Recovery Center both offer peer support groups, also in Jackson. And a domestic violence nonprofit called Operation Care has started hosting annual suicide awareness walks.

But all these services are centralized to one place. Because this area is geographically spread out, many people live miles from help. They may be too sick or too poor to drive. If despair takes over and there’s a gun in the home — which is the case for many households in this area — the thought of suicide can quickly move from ideation to execution.

And it’s not just older, hermit-like people who are struggling. Young people also take their lives here, sometimes driven by a sense of hopelessness inherited from their parents. This area has been experiencing an economic downturn since the closure of the lumber mills over the last several decades. Now, locals say most people work at the casino, for the prison, or in the fire service. Substance abuse is common among adults, and teens who witness that behavior often become depressed and addicted themselves.

So what’s the fix? That’s what I’m hoping to find out over the next six months. I want to talk to the families of residents lost to suicide, and to residents who have had suicidal thoughts themselves. I want to find out what is driving people in the community to desperation, and what would make things better.

I want to bring to the surface a conversation that has long been shrouded in stigma and shame. I hope that bringing this topic to light will show people that mental illness is as real and treatable as any other life-threatening condition. People may need a wake-up call to come terms with their own challenges, but once they do that, they might be willing to seek out help.

On a policy level, there’s a clear lack of funding for the on-the-ground workers who are trying to prevent suicide deaths. Operation Care says all of the nonprofit groups are stretching their budgets with the same state and federal dollars, and that more funding could help them keep longer hours, or send out mobile support teams for isolated people.

An in-depth series that highlights the personal stories of people living with mental illness could help build some much-needed empathy on a statewide level and help move the needle on policies that could benefit often-forgotten places like Amador, Calaveras and Mariposa.

This project will be fleshed out with suicide data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An early perusal of the numbers indicates that the rates in these counties are far higher than the state average, and that suicides increased after the economic recession.

As a young person who grew up in an East Coast suburb, I know I will have to tread carefully to gain the trust of this area’s rural residents. But I believe it’s crucial, and perhaps even lifesaving to bring awareness to this topic at this time.

[Photo by Ken Lund via Flickr.]

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