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When Help Is Far Away, Idaho Residents Look Out For Neighbors At Risk Of Suicide


In the Mountain West, help is often far away for those in crisis, and guns are often close by, which is a dangerous combination. Some people in small towns are taking it upon themselves to curb what is now a worrying trend - rising suicide rates. From Boise State Public Radio, reporter Heath Druzin has more. And a warning - this story does discuss suicide and may not be appropriate for all listeners.

HEATH DRUZIN, BYLINE: Hank Thornton is walking through downtown Emida, Idaho, - population 684. It's timber country. There's a big statue of Paul Bunyan down the road and fully loaded logging trucks rumbling by.


DRUZIN: Thornton's checking in at the local diner, hoping to get people help.

HANK THORNTON: We've got to find them first.

DRUZIN: Next, he visits with Annette Kaye at her consignment store.

THORNTON: Hello, sunshine.

ANNETTE KAYE: Hi, baby. How are you?

THORNTON: Good. How are you doing?

DRUZIN: Kaye knows just about everyone in town. And she has a knack for knowing who might be struggling with their mental health.

KAYE: I was in love with a Vietnam veteran - came home one day and found him under the bed. And we went through a year of PTSD - partial inpatient, partial outpatient.

DRUZIN: This is what Thornton does on his regular drives through the small towns of Benewah County, Idaho. He checks in with community leaders like Kaye to see who needs a knock on the door, a kind word and information about mental-health resources. You see, amid the idyllic forested slopes, soaring peaks and grazing cattle, a crisis is rippling through Mountain West communities like Emida - suicide by firearm. The region has some of the highest suicide rates in the country but often lacks prevention resources. For example, in Idaho, people take their lives at the fifth-highest rate in the country, yet the government has some of the lowest per capita spending on mental health care. That spurred Thornton, a retired Home Depot manager and Vietnam veteran, to get at-risk neighbors help.

THORNTON: How can we rank so high in attempted suicides and fund it so little?

DRUZIN: So Thornton got backing from the American Legion and training from a national suicide prevention group to get people in crisis the help they need.


THORNTON: It's OK, you don't have to open the door. We've just come to check on you and see how you're doing.

DRUZIN: Thornton's checking in on a fellow Vietnam veteran. The veteran's away, but Thornton gets an update from his wife.

THORNTON: If you guys need anything, you've got my card. Give me a call.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you for your service twice.

THORNTON: Oh, you're more than welcome.

DRUZIN: Thornton is 70 years old and a gun owner. He connects to the group most at risk for suicide and often most resistant to help - older men.

KRISTI SCOTT: They're tough, and they're strong. And they, you know, take care of things behind closed doors.

DRUZIN: That's Kristi Scott, who runs the Suicide Prevention Action Network of Benewah County. The group offers support for suicide survivors based in the small logging town of St. Maries, down the road from Emida. She and a friend built the group from nothing last year because they felt they had no choice. It's all volunteer with no state funding, just a small grant and donations. Scott says she had watched family after family hit by suicide with no local resources to help them.

SCOTT: They're just left picking up the pieces and not knowing where to turn.

DRUZIN: Her alarm is justified. Here in Benewah County, the rate was nearly 2 1/2 times the national average in the last four years for which data is available.

SCOTT: It's just been one of those things where I feel like we've kind of just swept it under the rug.

DRUZIN: But Scott's trying to change that. She organized the town's first suicide-prevention walk last month with enthusiastic support from the mayor. The factors affecting suicide rates are complex, but there is one thing that is simultaneously impossible to ignore but difficult to talk about - firearms. And that's one thing all Mountain West states have in common - higher than average rates of gun ownership. Public health studies see a correlation between that and suicide.

SCOTT: These people raise their children to understand the safety of a firearm and the danger of it, as well. But, again, you don't know what you don't know. And a lot of times, family members will have someone right under their roof and not know that they're struggling with suicide.

DRUZIN: Idaho suicide prevention efforts have been uneven. Until 2016, the state didn't fund a suicide prevention hotline. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare declined a request for a recorded interview. But in a written statement, the department's administrator acknowledged a lack of funding pre-2016. But she said the state had made strides since, pointing to increased funding and a five-year suicide reduction plan launched in 2018. Back on the road with Hank Thornton, he says more needs to be done.

THORNTON: We lost one here in March. We didn't know him. We did his funeral - we did the honor guard for his funeral. Had someone called us - someone just let us know that he was struggling, maybe we could've made a difference.

DRUZIN: And in small towns across the West, people like Thornton are racing to make that difference. For NPR News, I'm Heath Druzin.

MARTIN: That story comes to us from the public radio project Guns & America. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Heath Druzin is Boise State Public Radio’s Guns & America reporter, part of a national collaboration between 10 public radio stations examining all aspects of firearms in America.