UW’s Stress and Mood Lab Researches High Rates of Suicide in Mountain West

head photo of a woman

Carolyn Pepper

The Mountain West region suffers from one of the highest rates of suicide in the nation, a phenomenon that Carolyn Pepper, a University of Wyoming psychology professor, is studying.

Pepper’s research team at UW’s Stress and Mood Lab is using nationally collected health data to understand what factors are specific to the Mountain West’s suicide rate. The stoic, individualistic Western mindset is one possible explanation.

“Suicide is, to some extent, normalized in the Mountain West,” Pepper says. “We’ve all seen it, and we’ve all experienced the loss of someone. I think we’ve become numb to it because it happens so often.”

Pepper believes that when an event as devastating as suicide becomes “normal news,” it should not be ignored.

“Suicide and nonsuicidal self-injury demand to be researched,” she says.

September is Suicide Prevention Month.

The Stress and Mood Lab is collaborating with Ruth Kerry, an associate professor of geography from Brigham Young University, for her expertise on data collection and drug use. Pepper wants to use Kerry’s data methods to conduct research analysis on suicide by region.

The Stress and Mood Lab initially studied demographic factors such as age, race, urbanization level and gender. Although all of these were elevated factors in the Mountain West, they did not explain why suicide rates are so high. The research team is now shifting focus to the cultural factors of living in a state with a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality.

“This mentality is the idea that people should solve problems without anyone’s help. Asking for help and displaying emotion are signs of weaknesses,” Pepper says. “The thought is that people have to ‘cowboy up’ on their own, but this does not have to be the reality. Suicide does not have to be a taboo topic.”

In 2018, Pepper presented her initial research to the statewide third annual Governor’s Symposium on Suicide Prevention. The most alarming statistic was that, on average, one person dies by suicide every two days in Wyoming. Since that time, the rate of deaths by suicide has increased, according to current statistics from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“I kept thinking someday I should study suicide, but I was sure that someone was already doing this research,” Pepper says. “I waited and waited, but no psychologist was looking at suicide in Wyoming.”

Pepper’s research team is now bridging the gap and hopes to make a difference in the number of suicides in the state.

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