Aaah, country life…where, in the U.S., suicide rates are higher

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s not easy living in a rural area, as some people discover when they move to one.

This deeply disturbing New York Times story discusses the suicide rate in rural America — twice as high as in urban areas:

The C.D.C. reported last year that Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the nation, almost 30 deaths per 100,000 people in 2012, far above the national average of 12.6 per 100,000. Not far behind were Alaska, Montana, New Mexico and Utah, all states where isolation can be common. The village of Hooper Bay, Alaska, recently recorded four suicides in two weeks.

In one telephone survey of 1,000 Wyoming residents, half of those who responded said someone close to them had attempted or died by suicide.

In September, mental health experts, community volunteers and law enforcement officers gathered in Casper to discuss possible solutions. Among the participants was Bobbi Barrasso, the wife of Senator John Barrasso, who has made suicide prevention a personal and political mission.

“Wyoming is a beautiful state,” she told the crowd. “We have great open spaces. We are a state of small population. We care about one another. We’re resourceful, we’re resilient, we cowboy up.”

…The realities of small-town life can take an outsize toll on the vulnerable. A combination of lower incomes, greater isolation, family issues and health problems can lead people to be consumed by day-to-day struggles, said Emily Selby-Nelson, a psychologist at Cabin Creek Health Systems, which provides health care in the rural hills of West Virginia.

This story hit home for me.

In 1988-89, I spent 18 months living in Lebanon, New Hampshire (now, shockingly, plagued by an epidemic of heroin addiction), a small town of about 10,000 close to the much more affluent town of Hanover, NH, home to Dartmouth College. I moved there to follow my then boyfriend (later husband) in his medical residency at Dartmouth, a four-year commitment.

Port Hope, Ontario. pop. 16,000
Port Hope, Ontario. pop. 16,000

I was excited. I had only lived downtown, and/or in large cities like Toronto, Montreal and Paris. I was really curious about small-town life and looked forward to trying it — but barely lasted a year before I was really in fear of losing my mental health. No exaggeration.

It was the worst time of my life.

We were broke, trying to live (and own two cars) on his salary of $22,000, the nation’s poorest-paying medical residency and my savings. I had no job and there were none to be found.

There was no Internet then. The winter was brutally long and cold. We had no friends or family nearby and every social overture I made was ignored or went unreciprocated.

Everyone was married or pregnant and/or had kids. We were “only” living together, not yet even engaged, which (!?) seemed scandalous to others our age, even students who’d moved there from other large cities.

The only time our phone rang, a voice would say “I need a windshield” — we had inherited the former number for Upper Valley Glass.

I know. That sounds funny.

I'd rather be surrounded by a horde of dancing strangers, thanks!
I’d rather be surrounded by a horde of dancing strangers, thanks!

I became almost agoraphobic because everywhere we went, alone or together, we were socially invisible. Plus, ambitious as hell, I was professionally dying on the vine. Journalism is incredibly competitive and staying out of it for even a year or two is never a great idea.

I had left my country, close friends, a well-paid newspaper job and a gorgeous apartment.

For this?!

The stifling pressure to conform to some really weird 1950s-era ideal of behavior was crazy. I was criticized — by a friend! — for choosing bright green rubber boots instead of sensible brown or black. And coming from Montreal, a vibrant, bilingual, sophisticated city, the region’s dominant ethos of Yankee self-denial was alien, all these women wearing no makeup or perfume or anything with a visible shape to it.

I had never felt so out of place, not even when I lived in France or Mexico.

Yes, we had a nice apartment. Yes, the countryside was gorgeous. Yes, I actually enjoyed attending the local auction every Friday and learned a lot about antiques.

But I fled to New York within 18 months of arriving there; I would never have made it through another three years there.

For the past 25 years I’ve lived in a small town, but one only 25 miles from Manhattan. It gives me the best of both worlds, easy, quick access to one of the busiest and most challenging cities in the world — with the beauty and silence that also recharges and refreshes me. I know enough people here now I’m always seeing someone I know at the gym or the post office or the grocery stores. but without feeling stifled or excluded.

London -- much more my speed!
London — much more my speed!

Do you live in a rural or isolated area or small town?

How is it working for you?

17 thoughts on “Aaah, country life…where, in the U.S., suicide rates are higher

  1. sandraphinney

    I live in an isolated area of Nova Scotia … in the woods, close to a river. Our driveway is so long that it would have cost a fortune to bring in power when we built here 11 years ago so we powered up with solar and live completely off the grid. I am happiest (and most productive) here. Around 14 years ago, my husband and I moved to Yarmouth, a town of about 7,000 people and lived as a “townie” for three years. Although we lived in a lovely residential area, it was horrible. I could see through the windows what my neighbours were watching on TV or what they were cooking for breakfast. After three years of this we decided to move back to the country and built a place ourselves on a piece of property we owned. We don’t even have curtains on our windows as there’s not a neighbour in sight.

    Save for those three years in town, we’ve lived our entire married lives (40 years) in the country.

    Work-wise, I don’t have the connections I would have if I lived in a city. Although I belong to some professional writing groups, and they have chapter meetings in TO and Montreal and Vancouver, it’s too costly to attend or take advantage of these networking/PD sessions … although I do get so see colleagues at annual conferences. No doubt I could double my income if I lived in one of our major cities. But my tolerance for any city is about one week. Then I start to get the shakes.

    In terms of having friends, a social network and plenty of stimulating activities … I live with an abundance of these I am blessed. There are many villages between here and Yarmouth (closest town 30 min. away). But I also think it’s the nature of small Canadian communities to be diverse and welcoming. Many people in my region are not highly educated but they have big hearts and welcoming natures. You would not have felt “alone” here as you did in Lebanon NH. It must have been soul destroying.

    Mind you, I grew up in this region and lived much of my adult life here. But Atlantic Canada do seem to be known for going out of their way to make strangers welcome. In fact, a travel writer (Ben Widdicombe, “Cruise Insider,” Aug. 12. 2015) who visited Yarmouth on the last leg of his journey this summer, wrote, “But, Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, rocked. Those people are crazy hospitable. They behave like they go home every night to a waiting government agent, who will tie them to a kitchen chair and slap them if they’re not nice to tourists.”

    I think that most CFA’s who live here (Come-From-Aways) would agree.

    There. End to brag about “my town” and living in small communities.

    1. Yay! What a great life you’ve created for yourself….I want to move there now! 🙂

      Interestingly, I did profile a couple living in rural NS for a NYT story a few years ago and it sounded pretty idyllic. We hope to retire within 7 years and are trying to determine where.

      I definitely want to spend part of my time in France and possibly some of it in Canada as well. Our NH life was 2 hrs from Boston and we were so broke that even a day’s play was out of the question. My father lives in Port Hope (only 1 hr from Toronto) but it’s not that interesting a town to me, although it’s very pretty.

      I agree entirely that a welcoming and diverse community are essential to some people being happy, city, town or outback. I found neither in NH — and it really was very painful. I’ve always made new friends!

      I really like Tarrytown a great deal, so we’ll see if we keep our apt. here after killing the mortgage. I know I really enjoy easy access to museums, plays, concerts, etc….and I’m also able (if needed) to add income through networking; last night in NYC an old friend made a great introduction to a possible new teaching gig.

      I do wonder if we’ll ever own a house, and something small and rural is likely the only way that would happen.

      Glad you’re so happy!

  2. Paris is far too polluted for me – air pollution is horrific, as well as noise pollution (those pesky scooters and little cars drive me crazy.) I need to move. But where? Problem is I have a really good job here. My mother lived in Port Hope during the last years of her life. She really liked it (close to the lake, very friendly people and community spirit.) I think I’d like to live in a smaller town…but then again, maybe not. I’ve become a real city girl. I honestly don’t know where and how I’d like to live if I had my way. Perhaps 6 months in the city and 6 months in the country or in a warm, sunny clime somewhere??? I don’t think I really answered your question…We did have a farm in the country when I was growing up, but it was just for weekends and summer vacation. None of us ever imagined living there full time.

    1. Port Hope — as you know — is only a hr into Toronto, so you’d have easy access. And Montreal and Ottawa are also within manageable distances.

      Once you have stopped working (?), the world is, to some degree, your oyster. Non? 🙂

  3. I’ve done both and I find a combination works best for me. I don’t like crowds but I like the flexibility of the city. The peace and quiet of the rural community is hard to beat. An hour or so outside the metro seems about right.

    1. Me, too. I would never have considered living in “the suburbs” for 20+ years but this does not feel typically suburban — our town is very lively, with cafes, art galleries, gourmet shops.

  4. i live in a medium-sized university town that is full of life and a diverse group of people. i really enjoy it here. it sounds like you’ve found just the right fit for you and i’m happy that you and jose feel at home –

  5. Yes, I’m a city girl at heart. I had moved to the northwest for 14 years, grey, cold, rainy small towns with no jobs. I had contemplated sucking on a tailpipe many times before finally moving to a more busy, sunny climate. I found it suffocating in the lack of mental stimulation and possibility of witnessing any serendipity that life has to offer. I don’t conform well. I loved the natural surroundings but it takes a different type of person than me. I feel being on the outskirts of a large city is much more appealing to me.

    1. Ouch!

      Sorry to read this…but comforted as well. 🙂

      The insane pressure to conform out there was so bizarre to me. Like, what was the point? Their approval and acceptance? I didn’t even like them or want it!

      I was also much happier after leaving Toronto’s GRAY winter days; by February I couldn’t bear another minute of it. Even the cold of Montreal and NH were much less onerous with SO much more sunshine. NY, too.

      Glad you have found a fit that works for you.

  6. I agree with you in that, as in everything else in life, balance is key. I have always known I am not a rural, small-town gal. I need theater, downtown lights, some diversity. And yet, I have to balance that with a view of the ocean now and then, a hike in the mountains, a picnic in a quiet place. I hope we get smarter about how we plan our cities and suburbs going forward. We really could have the best of both worlds.

    1. True!

      I grew up in Toronto and Montreal; Toronto, especially, has huge, gorgeous ravines and parks and the Toronto Islands, accessible year round by ferry (about 10 mins) you you’ve always got a natural escape. It really shaped how close I need to be to nature (Paris is not good at that, and I’d like to live there possibly PT in retirement); where we live now I’m a 10-min drive from a 750 acre open preserve and a really pretty walk beside the reservoir.

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