March 25, 2015

Higher suicide rates out West due to rootlessness?

From Wikipedia's article on the epidemiology of suicide by region, here's a map of suicide rates among white men during the peak of the violent crime rate circa 1990:


This map left out Alaska, but it has a very high rate as well.

The main effect is being out West, which I interpret as a symptom of rootlessness and transplant living. Not only does being rooted in your place give you more support to cope with life's troubles before you even began thinking about suicide, it also reminds you how disrespectful it would be to others to just off yourself. When roots are shallow, removing yourself from the local social web doesn't feel like you'd be inflicting such a great loss on them.

There are pockets of relatively lower rates along the Pacific coast, particularly away from its major cities. Sure enough, the West Coast is relatively more rooted than the Intermountain West -- once you reach California, you tend not to want to leave (especially before the '90s), whereas nobody feels like staying in Nevada for very long.

That still wouldn't explain why Utah's rates are so high. They are more deeply rooted than others in the region, and they are more religious.

Back East, there's a noticeable line between higher rates in the South and the southern Midwest, and lower rates farther north (aside from a pocket of higher rates in northern New England). Perhaps this reflects ethnic diversity, with whites more likely to kill themselves when they leave near large black populations -- Missouri, western Tennessee, and most of the Deep South.

If so, that would be another influence of rootedness, because even if your own group's roots go back as far as they do among Southern whites, they aren't rooted in the entire local region because that territory is occupied by the roots of the region's historically large black population.

Black roots are shallow in the industrial Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and southern New England, so perhaps that's why they don't crowd out the feeling of rootedness among whites in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston (at least back in 1990). Whites don't like living next to black populations that just showed up within some residents' own memories -- the Great Migration that began in the 1920s -- but the sense that blacks are recent transplants from slave-land allows whites to still claim the whole region as the land of their own roots.

29 comments:

  1. I usually learn something on this blog. I would have thought the Northwest would have have been higher because of the weather. I always thought the rain influenced the grunge movement which influenced the larger culture but who knows. The lack of greenery might be a factor in Nevada's numbers. I'm not joking, I loved the sunlight and the warmth in Vegas but the brown mountains were a downer. Obviously, your more concerned with rootlessness but climate and scenery might be a small factor as well at least on the west coast. I was wondering if most forms of mental illness would create a map like this.

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  2. It's hard to see "depressing weather / scenery" in that map. Suicides are most common in late spring and summer, when the Pac NW isn't cold overcast and raining. The southern band of the SW looks brown and parched during the summer, but as you get around Colorado and Utah, let alone Idaho and Montana, it looks like a green Alpine setting.

    The northern Midwest and Great Lakes areas don't have high rates like the Intermountain West. In fact they're higher in the South.

    The only geographic common denominator out West is high elevation (which would also explain lower rates along the coast), but you don't see elevation explaining too much in the eastern half. They should be highest in Appalachia, but West Virginia and Pennsylvania are fairly low. They're higher in the western Midwest / Plains region, going along with greater rootlessness out that far.

    Western Tennessee has higher rates than the eastern part, which goes with ethnic diversity and difficulty feeling rooted as a white person, but goes against the elevation / mountain theory. Southern Georgia has higher rates than northern, ditto Mississippi. Louisiana has higher rates than W Va despite having no mountains or hills, but does have a much higher level of diversity.

    Rootedness doesn't explain 100% of the variation around the country, but it's pretty close.

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  3. "I was wondering if most forms of mental illness would create a map like this."

    I've been looking into it. It runs into difficulty of interpretation if you make it about rates of diagnosed mental illness, since that could reflect how prevalent the psychiatric worldview is in different parts, how willing local residents are to use it, and so on.

    But suicide, divorce, etc., are more objective outcomes that are hard to argue against as signs of social dysfunction.

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  4. Excellent point about objective outcomes. I guess I would assume that a higher rate of antidepressant usage would indicate a populace which at least, thinks it has a problem even if, objectively they are no worse off then a populace with less usage. All else being equal, I would prefer to live in an area with a strong assumption of psychological health among its citizens. Finally, looking at that map makes me wonder how Colorado's pot experiment will change the color of that state. It almost couldn't hurt.

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  5. Antidepressant use may tell us more about how people tend to deal with depression than how depressed they are. If they have others to lean on, they may not turn to a medicalized solution. Whereas if they feel more isolated, then Prozac to the rescue.

    In any case, it's hard to find depression rates that are controlled for by race. Leaving race in, the mountainous states have the highest depression rates -- the Intermountain West, as well as Appalachia. That could just be telling us where white people live, though. Utah usually ranks at the top for depression.

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  6. Looking at Nor Cal/Southern Oregon, I can better understand the rivalry between So Cal and the Northwest. Also why people from Oregon/Washington resent California transplants. Seems like the central west coast is a magnet for weirdos. I wonder why. Is it the persistent legacy of the 60's freakout? Still, even hippies have their limits and the biggest assholes get booted to Nevada.

    Not sure why Upper New England is that bad. It definitely isn't race related and given how well Michigan, upstate New York, and Pennsylvania come off, it's not a rust belt issue either. I've seen a few things over the years dealing with how much Atlantic Canada has been struggling. Does this apply to northern New England also? I'm not from the area so I don't really get why it does so much worse than the rest of the Northeast.

    With regard to what motivated grunge, it's probably got something to do with the characteristics of the musicians who either:
    - Are from the area and stayed in the area
    or
    - Came to Seattle from elsewhere and fit in (like Eddie Vedder)

    Seems like they would've felt out of place on say, the Sunset Strip. As the 90's began people started turning away from the flashy and excitable showmanship best represented by the So Cal scene. So the somberly earnest and/or dryly bitter Anglo/Nordic vibe of the Seattle scene got popular. It's no coincidence that the ethnically (and hence culturally) similar 80's/early 90's Minneapolis scene was sometimes considered a poor man's Seattle in terms of the alt. bands.

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  7. " Finally, looking at that map makes me wonder how Colorado's pot experiment will change the color of that state. It almost couldn't hurt."

    Given that pot has been associated with psychosis and damage to developing brains, it shouldn't be treated too flippantly. But try telling that to a state with so many flakes in the first place.

    As the late Boomers (basically THE pot generation) age and their brains inevitably decline, it's gonna be interesting. Course, it's kind of a chicken or egg thing. Did greater recklessness lead them to doing drugs, or did drugs make them impulsive and naive? Probably a litte bit of both.

    We've already dealt with stubborn early Boomers and it hasn't been pretty. Are the less pretentious late Boomers innately sensible enough that it will cancel out the damage wrought by a youth (and sometimes a whole life) of indulgence?

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  8. Seattle and the Pac NW in general was Celtic rather than Anglo or Nordic. Most of the West, in fact, outside of Mormon land.

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  9. The upper Northern part of California that's red is utterly different than Central and SoCal, it's more akin to Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming in sensibility. Lots of "rugged individualists" and advocates of the State of Jefferson and such. Your basic reactionary small gubbmit Tea Party type. Aside from Humboldt County (which is orange here), it is a FAR more conservative place than any other area of the state. The most liberal enclaves, the Bay Area and LA, seem to have a fairly low rate of suicide.

    I think that misguided idea of rugged individualism is the pattern in the red areas of this map. Nevada, Wyonming, Montana, upper Idaho (hello, Coeur d'Alene white supremacist survivalists!). Those people can't/don't admit to needing anyone outside their immediate circle, and sometimes not even them. When things go south, they don't have a support group, or at least won't allow themselves to go to one for help.

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  10. Not to mention the prevalence of gun culture, ease of access to guns and weapons per capita is higher in those red regions than average. Texas is the outlier in this regard, with a thriving gun culture and relatively low suicide rate.

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  11. Those red states out West are libertarian rather than conservative. It's rare to find folks in the heartland who are paranoid loner gun nuts LARPing as the Wolverines from Red Dawn.

    Apart from being disconnected socially, people out West are unmoored religiously. If they only lacked other people to turn to, at least they might be able to turn to God. But there is no God to the people out West. Not just the Christian God, but any deity.

    It's probably the rootlessness more than the godlessness, though, since the Mormon corridor has suicide rates similar to the rest of the Intermountain West.

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  12. You're right, libertarian is a better term, although plenty of them are Christian as well and are socially conservative. They ain't liberal, basically. The ones I know have family roots in California going back a couple generations, but they've moved away from their communities and have formed little cliques among their age cohorts. The boomers, at least. Those that are my age (Gen X) have school age kids and so are still active in their communities and put up a front in public, sort of. My two younger kids are in Boy Scouts and I'm the only liberal, so I get to hear lots of griping about Obama and Mexicans and guns and gays and "your president." You'd like them.

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  13. The desolate, arid West attracts or creates sociopaths. What other region the world is desolate and arid and has a reputation for producing sociopaths? the Mideast, where nomadic pastoralism was practiced for a long time.

    Perhaps nomadic pastoralism produces more of a transplant, status-striving personality, that has a tendency to sociopathy.

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  14. Nomadic pastoralists, afterall, historically practiced polygamy, which goes along with status-striving and inequality.

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  15. Desolate places attract people who want to be alone and unfettered by society, so yeah. Lots of cranks and crackpots, some of them lovable, some of them not so much. I know some artists who moved out near Gerlach, NV, they love the barren landscape and the relatively few people. They mix it up with the gun nut survivalists. It's a heady brew.

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  16. I think lack of family connections probably is a big part of it, and low religion - those are pretty repeated and standardly linked to suicide.

    Looking at the UK for another angle, suicide by region tends to be big in Scotland and the Scottish Highlands (with a few hotspots in Wales, NI and Cornwall, the whole Celtic fringe), lowest in the South East.

    More or less it seems to me it hits the most economically deprived regions of the country, not really the rootless parts here. Although the variance in how rooted people are is probably less here, as its a less mobile country overall I think.
    Material deprivation has a pretty established effect in linking up to suicide.

    So I wonder if this sort of effect gets exaggerated in the striver American West. It's not a rich region where people do especially well, but it's home to a lot of boom towns that attract strivers. You've got relatively larger lot of these men, maybe for who the region is kind of a second chance for, who aren't doing as well economically as they like, place great importance on wealth and success and have few connections that would hold them pack from ending their lives. (Like the Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad archetype characters, or am I getting one of those weird transatlantic exaggerated views of the US?).

    So perhaps that's why you get a fair amount of suicide. Probably not a large enough effect on its own, but bleeds over into the general culture?

    The UK doesn't really have boom towns as such. There are a few places in Scotland I think that do well off oil, but no "Go West, young man" boom towns really. All the strivers here just get sucked into London, which is pretty rootless compared to the rest of the country but also pretty prosperous.

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  17. Why did these suicides out west move there in the first place? That's the big question. It could be that they wanted to escape bitter memories of their pasts and start their lives over, but the trauma remained in their minds and they saw suicide as the only way to end it. Nevada is historically a second chance state, with the largest number of people from somewhere else and the highest number of people who have changed their names. One can say that in these cases, they left their roots but their roots never left them.

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  18. I had heard that older rural white males have high suicide rates because they have more access to & familiarity with guns. Men are known for having higher suicide rates, but some exceptions where the rates seem equal are doctors who have easy access to relatively painless medications to kill themselves with, and third world countries where it's normal for women to own really caustic chemicals.

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  19. I'd considered the gun issue before I saw any comments. But aren't guns as common, maybe more common, in the South as they are in the West?

    I personally am not comfortable being in a house with guns.You can't predict what anyone's future psych. conditon will be. Besides, if tempers flare I don't want a gun being waved around.

    Still, it seems like rootlessness is the biggest factor in suicide. Secondarily, religion. Texans, especially West Texans, lean libertarian and are less rooted than other Southerners. But Texans are quite religious.

    Racial diversity would be third, with blacks in particular being very corrosive.

    Given how well the Rust Belt does and how well Texas and the white dominated heartland do, I don't think either the economy or guns make that much of a difference.

    "Why did these suicides out west move there in the first place? That's the big question. It could be that they wanted to escape bitter memories of their pasts and start their lives over,"

    Bridge burners they are. Con men and parasites don't move on 'til the mark is on to them. I have a hunch that drifting assholes tend to gradually drift towards either Florida or California (Texas to a lesser degree as Texans are more likely to shoot your lyin' ass off). Inevitably they'll wear out their welcome even in those states and end up in the mountain/desert states. If they're not locked up or dead yet, there's obviously a strong chance that they'll eventually be put out of their misery in the Wild West.

    The romantic mythology is that people go out West to seek adventure and possibly a fresh start. The reality is that many of these people just didn't fit into the more responsible, traditional values of the East (or to a lesser extent, the comparative stability of the West Coast).

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  20. Whoops, I didn't mean to suggest that EVERY single person who suicides in the West is a dirtbag. But even relatively decent people who end up in the non coastal West run the risk of such a rootless/godless environment amplifying (or possibly creating) destructive behavior.

    Then again, what kind of person flees their family/friends/homeland in the first place? Not the type of person you'd trust easily, more often than not.

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  21. "Then again, what kind of person flees their family/friends/homeland in the first place?"

    That depends. Coincidentally, I saw the movie "Moscow on the Hudson" last night, about Robin Williams as a Russian traveling performer who defects to America. The movie seemed to accurately portray the transplant experience - Williams' character works a series of shitty minimum wage jobs, dates a foreign girlfriend from Italy who is equally alienated and dumps him because "she doesn't want to get too involved", and fantasizes about his family back in Russia. By the end of the movie, he has become sad and forlorn about his inability to fit in to America.

    Anyway, the point is that Williams doesn't defect because he's egotistic(believes people back home don't give him the respect he deserves), or an outcast. He's an accepted member of the community, has friends and good relationships with his family, and even a girlfriend. Rather, times are just too hard back in Russia - he has to wait hours to buy toilet paper(if he gets any at all), there isn't much work, and the local authorities are always bullying him and ask him to spy on his friends.

    So we see that not all transplants are status-strivers or sociopaths. Some leave because its just too hard in their region, and they, often mistakenly, think it will be easier somewhere else.

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  22. It should also be pointed out that the Western states have a pretty long history of community by now, a good 100 years or so. The vast majority of people living in these states were born here and have some family history here. And as Curtis pointed out, many of the one who are transplants came here for economic reasons.

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  23. And in some cases, maybe the person genuinely doesn't fit in and has to go somewhere else. Someone could mysteriously be born with the wrong personality for his region, and not be an egotist or sociopath. It happens.

    Though, I agree with "Face to Face" that the transplant phenomenon is bad and caused primarily by status-striving.

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  24. Moscow on the Hudson" last night, about Robin Williams as a Russian traveling performer who defects to America. The movie seemed to accurately portray the transplant experience". "he has become sad and forlorn about his inability to fit in to America"

    Good for the movie if it doesn't totally sanitize things (also if the movie doesn't whine about prejudice keeping people down). It was made in '84 which was a good time for movies.

    The director is an early Silent Gen. Jew (big shock). At least he was fairly conservative going by the fact that he was married to the same women since 1953. Regardless, increasingly since the 60's it became fashionable for Silents and Boomers to rag on the idea that American ought to be a land of God fearing NW Euro whites.

    It took a while for this liberal BS to spread. Even into the 70's the majority of non-Manhattan dwelling Americans were concerned primarily with the welfare of native born Americans. Most Americans back then did not want to share food, land, energy, and jobs with foreigners.As bizarre as it sounds today, people in the 1920's-70's were not comfortable with the idea of welcoming Jose or Boris since such people were considered selfish, bold, and unsavory for leaving their homes and then barging in on a nation that:

    - Already has enough people
    - Has limits to accommodating every/anyone
    - Speaks a different language or dialect
    - May not understand or agree with your customs
    - May have a deeply rooted animosity towards your people

    The fact that movies like this became more common in the 80's says a lot. The 80's were when the elite really began turning their back on "regular" Americans. So we started to see more stories about immigrants, ghetto blacks/hispanics, etc. It really got aggressive in the 90's when droves of white kids started getting into rap and cheering for mostly/totally black basketball teams. Hard to blame the elites for that.

    The immigrant apologist idea that immigrants contribute wonderful things to the countries in which they dwell is ludicrous. Why don't they enrich their homelands then?

    Obviously, this is all status related. Elites and wannabe elites began bad mouthing the natives of an area so as to justify:

    - Ignoring and exploiting natives
    - Leaving the area for greener pastures
    - Swamping the area with foreigners
    - Conflating and even obliterating the very concept of national character/nation cultures (emphasizing tradition gets in the way of selfish greed). We've seen the much mocked (but still ever more popular) tendency of elite politicians/CEOs/journalists/lawyers only showing outrage over incidents of racism and homophobia to the point that one forgets that other kinds of evil actually exist. Meanwhile, how often are people shamed for behavior that dishonors one's family or nation?

    A "Nation of Immigrants" is no nation at all. A Nation of Nihilism would be a more accurate way to describe such chaos.

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  25. It came rather early in the striving cycle, but quite possibly the Hollywood low point for immigrant sob stories was a 1985 movie called Alamo Bay. Directed by Silent Gen. Frenchman Louis Malle and starring early Boomer Ed Harris (shame on you).

    The movie's plot concerns a bigoted Vietnam vet clashing with Vietnamese fishermen in Texas. The movie's a big white guilt a-thon, made all the more crass for being a distorted version of a real life conflict involving white Texans who were justifiably bitter at FOB laborers overfishing the area. There are IMDB reviews from guys who remembered the events. And they ain't pleased with a Frog and a Yankee taking cheap shots at Texans.

    I guess that's another "how could you" moment for the 80's. That was the first decade of dumb PC, but it obviously would get much worse down the line.

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  26. Fun Fact: By 1986 there was an Arab-American Anti Discrimination committee that bitched about a Rambo action figure line.

    The seeds of our downfall were planted long ago.

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  27. "(Like the Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad archetype characters, or am I getting one of those weird transatlantic exaggerated views of the US?)"

    Lately with all the brain dead superhero movies I've come to think that media doesn't so much as represent modern reality as it represents whatever people want to experience at the moment, which is usually wish fulfillment. I.e. Stallone in Rambo 2 saying "do we get to win this time?"

    Seems like a lot of Americans (and perhaps other white Westerners) took to Breaking Bad since they can relate to an extremely desperate protagonist. What really hooked them was the fantasy of being "maverick"/"bad ass"/anti-hero who hits rock bottom and keeps drilling further down.

    Indeed, per Wikipedia: "The concept emerged as Gilligan talked with his fellow writer Thomas Schnauz regarding their current unemployment and joked that the solution was for them to put a "meth lab in the back of an RV and [drive] around the country cooking meth and making money."[12]"

    Before the 1990's, this kind of "hardcore", nasty drama would not have succeeded. But in the increasingly amoral scum of post 1992 America, people get a lurid thrill out of watching the bad guy be bad. In the 80's you were supposed to have a relatively good hearted, amiable protagonist who shoots up the bad guys. And of course you were supposed to sympathize with the victims of criminals rather than rationalize psychopathic behavior.

    "Cranston said by the fourth season: "I think Walt's figured out it's better to be a pursuer than the pursued. He's well on his way to badass."[9]"

    Cranston doesn't say scumbag, monster, or even asshole. Instead it's "bad ass", because being the good guy is so boring and unrealistic to the modern autistic/amoral audience.

    I think the extremely weak bonds between people and narcissism you get in a high inequality/low outgoingness time period explain a lot of this infatuation with psychos that we've seen since the early 90's. If we more deeply loved more people we'd understand why we ought to be disgusted and repelled by vile criminals.

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  28. Expat Woodchuck4/1/15, 3:48 PM

    I'd second the above comments about access to guns being a significant factor, though not the only one or even the most important one. The high-suicide patch in northern New England coincides very well with elevated gun ownership in that part of the Northeast. Of course, it's also a very Old Yankee area, ethnically- very Post-Puritan and generally irreligious, at least by rural standards. This is probably also a factor.

    This wouldn't be reflected in the map, but as a tangentially-related side note, I'll wager that a lot of "accidental" firearm deaths in areas where guns are common are actually camouflaged suicides, made to look like accidents so the wife and kids can get the insurance money.

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  29. I think the method of suicide is over-rated as a factor, although I haven't read too much of the suicide literature. The "rate-limiting step," to put it in callous scientific terms, is depression, suicidal ideation, and feeling pretty sure that you're going to do it. How? Well, it doesn't matter, you can figure it out the day of, if need be.

    I saw somebody attempt suicide in broad daylight in the Mountain states -- hopping in front of a light rail train. It was slowing down, so it didn't hit him hard enough to kill him, but it sent him up in the air, he landed on his back, and had to be hauled away on a stretcher.

    It doesn't take fancy technology to kill yourself. Jumpers were a staple of pop culture in the old days of higher suicide and violent crime.

    I'd say the two main factors are depression / profound lack of satisfaction, and lack of roots that would put the brakes on the depression train before it hit suicidal ideation.

    When you look for other signs of depression, the West in general looks pretty blue. (And also pretty high -- not so much manic-depressive, as inwardly depressed but projecting outward awesomeness.)

    Aside from antidepressant use, there's plastic surgery as an attempt to self-medicate for body dysmorphia. Not just superficial California. Utah consistently ranks near or at the top of number of plastic surgeons per capita (maybe procedures too, I don't know). That supply is feeding a demand, much higher than in most places.

    Something tells me that the Amish aren't plastic surgery junkies. But then they're not a prototypically Western group.

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