Rural suicide rates are rising in Kansas

Suicide rates in rural and frontier Kansas counties have climbed 55% and 60% from 2000 to 2019, a study shows. That's much higher than the increase in mid-sized cities and urban areas.


State News

September 23, 2021 - 9:48 AM

HAYS — Kyle Carlin understands first-hand how hard a mental health crisis can hit in rural Kansas.

He dealt with depression starting as a teenager. It eventually led him to attempt suicide.

But he didn’t think about seeking counseling until he was preparing to leave the Army Reserve in Hays roughly 12 years ago. Even then, asking for help wasn’t easy.

“Stigma is such a big issue around mental health,” Carlin said, “especially in western Kansas.”

His story illustrates a growing trend stressing rural communities across Kansas and the nation.

While suicide rates have increased by nearly 45% statewide over the past two decades, rates have risen most sharply in the most sparsely populated parts of Kansas.

This graph from the Kansas Health Institute report shows how suicide rates in rural and frontier counties have risen compared with the rest of the state.

A new Kansas Health Institute analysis of state data shows that suicide rates climbed in rural and frontier counties by roughly 55% and 60% respectively from 2000 to 2019, significantly outpacing the increases in mid-sized cities and urban areas.

For frontier counties — the least populated parts of the state — the KHI analysis also revealed a troubling rise in the rate of suicides that used firearms, which was notably higher than the rate in rural areas with more residents. 

And a variety of factors — from scarce resources to cultural stigmas to economic hardships — continue to put rural Kansans at risk.

That’s why Carlin volunteers with the local chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to put on a suicide prevention walk happening this month in Hays: He hopes it can make it easier for others to reach out for help like he did years ago.

“The difference for me was recognizing that you can’t just muscle through it,” Carlin said. “There are times when you need support outside of yourself.”

Bradley Dirks, a behavioral health specialist with K-State Research and Extension, said that the geographic isolation that generally accompanies rural life is often compounded by a culture that rewards toughness, grit and self-sufficiency.

“We don’t want to look weak, particularly as a male, particularly in a rural agriculture setting,” Dirks said. “So to go to someone and say, ‘Look, I’m at the end of my rope, I need help,’ is really difficult.”

That mindset, plus the limited number of counseling options nearby and the challenge of finding anonymity in a small town, fuels the stigma that often keeps people from getting the help they need.

“If someone goes to a local therapist, and everybody sees the pickup out in front,” he said, “There’s that stigma: ‘Oh, what’s wrong with so and so?’”