Journal of Rural Community Psychology, Vol. 12, No. 2,1993
Suicide in Wyoming, 1960-75
Richard A. Pasewark & John L. Fleer
University of Wyoming

Data for this study derive from death certificates of all persons certified as suicides in Wyoming during 1960-75. Wyoming is primarily a rural state with an area of 97,914 square miles. Its primary industries are mineral extraction ranch based agriculture and tourism. During the study period the states population ranged from 329,645 to an estimated 374,000 (Bureau of the Census 1973; 1976) and population density varied from 3.37 to 3.82 persons per square mile.

During the 16 years studied, there were 998 certified suicides. The average yearly rate of 18.1 per 100,000 was significantly higher than the average national rate of 11.3; and this was true for each year considered. However no discernible upward or downward trend was observed over the 16 years. While the female rate (6.9) approximated the national average (6.1) the male rate (29.1) was markedly higher than the national rate for males (16.7).

Consistent with national data a significant association prevails between suicide and marital status. In Wyoming divorced persons are at a high risk for both sexes. Divorced persons contribute 11% of the female suicides but only 4% of the female population. For males the figures are 17% and 4%. For males but not females widowhood increases the likelihood of suicide. Widowers constitute 2% of the population and 8% of suicides. The Wyoming male divorced and widower rates 182 and 137 vastly exceed the national rates of 88 and 74. It was further found that for males but not females marriage reduces the chance of suicide.

 Suicide rates increased with age for males; however for females the rate peaks at age 50-54 and decreases thereafter. Contrary to national statistics reporting an upsurge in suicide among adolescents (Bronfenbrenner 1974) a fairly stable adolescent rate is evidenced over the 16-year period.

Wyoming has a predominantly white population; and it is therefore difficult to draw conclusions relative to associations between suicide and ethnicity. Native American Indians are the states major racial minority with 1.5% of the population. In concordance with other studies (Resnik & Dizmang 1971) this group is overrepresented among Wyoming suicides contributing 25 or 2.5% of the suicides. Indian suicides differ from the suicide group and contain a higher proportion of individuals who are rural residents (x 2 = 43.23- df = 1; p < .01) under 25 years of age (x2 = 17.51; df = 1; p < .01) and single (x 2 = 10.61; df = 1; p <.01). Twenty of the 25 Indian suicides were male; and all but two killed themselves with guns.

Although previous studies (Breed 1963; Maris 1975, Sainsbury, 1955) indicate an inverse relationship between suicide rate and social class no significant association was found between occupational level and suicide in Wyoming.

Reflecting Wyoming's rural nature its emphasis upon hunting and the easy accessibility to firearms, a high proportion of men (77.3%) and women (54.2%) died of gunshot wounds. Comparable national figures are 55.7% and 25.4% (Public Health Service 1967). At odds with Lester's contention (1972) that women choosing firearms avoid facial disfiguration 70% of female gun deaths involved head wounds. Other frequent death causes for males and females respectively were: carbon monoxide—8% 22%; hanging—7%, 5%, and drugs—2%,12% .

In making the decision to die the vast majority of subjects chose a site of considerable familiarity to them. Seventy-two percent died in their homes, 7% along the roadside in their cars and 4% in autos at their homes. Only 4% elected to commit the act in a commercial residence such as a hotel. Women (80.0%) were somewhat more likely than men (70.1 % to kill themselves in their homes, but not significantly so (x2 = 1.83; df = 1; p < .05).

No significant association was found between suicide and month of year. A significant association between suicide and time of day was indicated with most male suicides (x 2 = 31.46; df = 3; p <.01) taking place during the daylight hours. The same trend though not statistically significant was found among women (x2 = 8.95; df =3; p >.05).

Analyses were conducted comparing suicide of residents in towns of more than 2,500 ( urban ) and those living in a site of smaller population ( rural ). Suicide rate was markedly higher among urban than rural residents (25.8% vs. 8.9%). Further the number of rural suicides peaked at age 35 while for urban residents the peak occurred 10 years later. Men outnumbered women five to one among the rural suicides and four to one among the urban group but the difference is not statistically significant. Rural suicides were more likely to be by gunshot than urban suicides (77.9% vs. 71.6%) but this finding is an artifact of the larger proportion of males among the rural group.

Wechsler (1961) reported high rates of suicide in communities that were rapidly increasing in population while Quinney (1965) and Lynn (1969) reported similar relationship with rapid industrialization and urbanization. During the years 1960-75 Wyoming experienced a differential rate of growth among its 23 counties primarily resulting from energy development. Although the state s population increased by 13.5% changes in population for individual counties varied from -24.6% to +115.0%. To determine whether population changes were associated with fluctuations in the rate of suicide, suicide rates were calculated for each county by year. Chi-square analysis indicated no significant relationship between rates of suicide in the individual counties and rates in other counties over the years 1960-75 (x 2 = 348.96; df =345; p >10).

To further assess the influence of what might be termed social disorganization yearly county suicide rates were joined with yearly population change within counties yearly mental hospital admission rates yearly county unemployment rates and yearly percentages of county population receiving Aid to Families of Dependent Children (AFDC) in a multiple regression analysis. The variables alone or in combination in a regression equation did not account for a significant proportion of the variance in suicide rates (Population F = .1305 p > .10; absolute population change F = .1110, p > .10; percentage of population change F = .3672 p >.10; percentage of population on AFDC F = .3478 p > .10; state hospital admission rates F = .2805 p >.10; unemployment rates F = .0267 p >.10.) Thus differences among counties with respect to population shifts rates of state hospital admissions unemployment and AFDC payments have no apparent relationship to fluctuations among Wyoming counties in the rate of suicide.
Essentially our findings indicate that Wyoming's suicide pattern is differentiated from those reported elsewhere by fairly uniform distribution throughout the social classes a preponderance of self-inflicted gunshot deaths, markedly elevated male rates and no seeming relationship with alterations in population growth.
It should perhaps not be surprising that Wyoming suicidal behavior differs from expectancies based upon national norms or from previously reported studies the majority of which were conducted in urban areas. The typical lifestyle in Wyoming undoubtedly differs from that of urbanized America in many ways with resultant differences in social relationships, accessibility of lethal weapons, likelihood of social service utilization, availability of support systems for bereaved and divorced individuals, and attitudes concerning what makes a life worth living. Any or all of these factors might well account for the high Wyoming suicide rates and the divergences from national suicide patterns.


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(Original journal pages 39-41)