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Missouri Ozarks, Bootheel Rank High In Suicide Rates

The Southeast Missouri Behavioral Health office in Cuba is an example of a mental health care office that serves a large, rural county.
Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio

ROLLA — A new study shows suicide rates are on the rise, especially in rural counties, and the Missouri Ozarks and the Bootheel have some of the highest in the Midwest.

The report from Ohio State University shows counties with higher suicide rates tend to have more gun shops, more veterans and fewer people with health insurance. Their populations also tend to be poorer, more socially isolated and have less access to health care.

“Findings suggest that increasing social connectedness, civic opportunities, health insurance coverage, and limiting access to lethal means within communities have the potential to reduce suicide rates across the rural-urban continuum,” according to the study. “Suicide rates in rural counties are especially susceptible to deprivation, suggesting that rural counties present special challenges and deserve targeted suicide prevention efforts.”

Debbie Fitzgerald, director of crisis services at the mental health provider the Ozark Center in Joplin, said the most important thing that can be done to decrease the suicide rate in the Ozarks is getting people help earlier.

“We need to improve access to care, that it’s closer to home, so people can get it when they need it, educate people on where this help is, and start having the conversation about suicide,” Fitzgerald said.


Fitzgerald said that despite some advancements, there is a stigma surrounding suicide and mental health issues, especially in rural communities. She also said since there aren’t enough mental health providers in rural communities — and it will take a long time to fix that — there need to be creative solutions.

“I would like to see primary care physicians start doing depression screenings when they do their annual physical,” Fitzgerald said. “It is required for those physicals that are done and billed to Medicare. But why don’t we have pediatricians do that and the regular primary care?”

In addition to the Ozarks and the Bootheel, the study found high suicide rates in Appalachia and western states. It also found the lowest suicide rates in the Midwest were in Chicago and its suburbs.

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Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.