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Kansas suicide rate up 45 percent since 1999, among the largest increases nationwide

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report Thursday showing that the suicide rate in Kansas rose 45 percent from 1999 to 2016.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report Thursday showing that the suicide rate in Kansas rose 45 percent from 1999 to 2016. Courtesy of the CDC

Suicides in Kansas rose 45 percent over the past 17 years, far outpacing the nation as a whole, according to a new federal report that said Kansas had one of the largest increases.

The suicide rate in Kansas increased 45 percent between 1999 and 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday. The rate increase in Missouri was 36.4 percent.

Both states easily exceeded the nation as a whole, with the overall U.S. suicide rate rising 25.4 percent.

Only four states – New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, and Vermont – experienced increases larger than Kansas. The state's suicide rate ranked 19th overall.

The increasing rate comes as no surprise to those who work to prevent suicide.

Monica Kurz, director of the Kansas Suicide Prevention Resource Center, said that while she was not surprised by the numbers in the CDC’s report, she is dismayed that suicide continues to be a significant problem in the state. She lamented the lack of greater resources for prevention efforts, noting that her center had to shrink staff after federal grants ran out.

“The reality is we’re just able to make contact with fewer communities and provide fewer resources with a smaller program,” Kurz said.

A 2017 Kansas report on suicide prevention from the Governor’s Behavioral Health Services Planning Council listed promoting funding opportunities for suicide prevention among its recommendations. The report also called for greater promotion of the national suicide prevention hotline across the state, especially in rural areas.

Rural areas in Kansas are particularly affected by suicide. The least-populated counties had the highest rates of suicide deaths in 2016, according to the Kansas Health Institute.

The least-populated counties in the state, called frontier counties, had a suicide rate of 25.9 per 100,000 people, compared to a rate of 17.8 among all counties. Urban counties had a rate of 17.

A 2012 CDC study of 17 states found that workers in farming, fishing and forestry had the highest rate of suicide – about 84.5 per 100,000 people.

“There’s a lot of stigma around mental health issues and suicide in particular and that creates some barriers from people reaching out for help when they need it,” Kurz said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill said Monday that she is supporting federal legislation that would provide funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish help-lines, and provide suicide prevention training for farm advocates.

“In addition to making sure Missouri’s farmers and ranchers have a strong safety net and access to trade, we need to ensure they have access to the mental health resources that are often lacking in rural areas,” McCaskill said in a statement.

CDC researchers also found that nationwide more than half of those who died by suicide did not have a known diagnosed mental health condition. Relationship problems, substance misuse, physical health problems and job, money, legal or housing stress often contributed, the CDC said.

"Many of us have been personally impacted by this unfortunate reality," said Greg Lakin, the chief medical officer of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. "It's important that everyone, whether it's a medical professional or co-workers, take an active role in offering help before it's too late."

Firearms were the most common method of suicide for those with and without a diagnosed mental health condition.

A number of states have adopted so-called red flag laws that give courts and the police the ability to temporarily remove guns from individuals who may be a threat to themselves.

A study published last week by the American Psychiatric Association evaluated red flag measures in Connecticut and Indiana and found the law was associated with a 7.5 percent reduction in firearm suicides in the 10 years after its enactment. In Connecticut, the reduction was 1.6 percent immediately after its passage and 13.7 percent after the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.

In Kansas, state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, has introduced red flag legislation several times.

“When you look at suicides, people who attempt suicide if they use a firearm are 80 percent likely to succeed,” Bollier said.

Programs that allow farmers and other individuals in rural areas to leave their guns in someone else’s hands when they go through major life events can also help, Kurz said. She also mentioned trigger locks as a possible prevention tool.

“We know that suicide is a pretty impulsive act,” Kurz said, “so if we can buy a little time that can save lives.”