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Reducing suicides in Sin City

January 5, 2009
by Brian Albright
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When researchers at Temple and Harvard Universities found that people in Las Vegas have a higher suicide risk than the rest of the United States, it came as little surprise to some local mental healthcare providers, as the suicide risk in Nevada is twice the national average.

Yet the problem in Las Vegas is particularly alarming. Not only are residents at a higher risk of suicide than other Americans, but visitors are twice as likely to commit suicide than visitors to other cities, having an even higher risk than Las Vegas residents.

The research, which studied suicide patterns over 30 years, was published in Social Science & Medicine last month.

Among the possible explanations are despair among gamblers and social isolation in the rapidly growing city. Another theory holds that people predisposed to suicide may disproportionately be drawn to Las Vegas.

Nevada formed a Suicide Resources Coordination Task Force in 2002 to improve service coordination, and local agencies also are doing their part to reduce suicides. Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services (SNAMHS), which serves Las Vegas, instituted a walk-in clinic system to provide faster care for those at risk.

“They don’t have to call a hotline,” explains Stuart Ghertner, PhD, SNAMHS’s director for outpatient and community services. “They go right to one of those clinics. Previously we had a centralized intake model, and you would have to go to the closest emergency room. You could sit anywhere from 24 to 96 hours until somebody came to evaluate you.

“A lot of people who showed up in the ER didn’t need to be in a hospital,” he adds. “They just needed to talk to somebody.”

The Temple/Harvard study found that suicide risk in Las Vegas is declining, but rough times could be ahead. Nevada has been hit hard by the recession, and SNAMHS has seen a 25% increase in new cases at a time when additional funding is scarce. According to NAMI, Nevada already ranks low in mental health spending per capita, and the legislature is considering more budget cuts this year.

Brian Albright is a freelance writer.