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November 24, 2014

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Just being in Vegas raises risk of suicide, study finds

The risk of suicide is significantly increased by visiting or living in Las Vegas, and leaving town reduces the risk that a person will take his own life, a former UNLV researcher has found.

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The finding is important because although Las Vegas is notorious for its high suicide rate, few academics have studied the problem.

Researcher Matt Wray, assistant professor of sociology at Temple University, and colleagues at Harvard University, have further clarified the extent of the problem with their study, “Leaving Las Vegas: Exposure to Las Vegas and Risk of Suicide.”

It does not answer the question of why people commit suicide in the city, but parses mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics in a manner that lays a foundation for future analysis, said Wray, who was a professor at UNLV from 2001 to 2008.

According to the study, which examined suicides between 1979 and 2004:

• Clark County residents were 54 percent to 62 percent more likely to commit suicide than U.S. residents elsewhere.

• Clark County visitors were more than twice as likely to commit suicide than if they stayed home.

• Travelers visiting Clark County were twice as likely to commit suicide here compared with travelers going elsewhere.

• Residents who traveled away from Clark County decreased their likelihood of committing suicide by 13 percent to 40 percent.

“That’s a significant reduction in your risk,” Wray said. “It’s a way of saying that if you’re feeling blue you should take a break from Las Vegas.”

Suicide is rare compared with other causes of death. In 2005, the most recent year statistics are available, there were 480 suicides in Nevada and 307 in Clark County. The Nevada suicide rate of 20 per 100,000 residents is almost twice the national rate.

The study, which will be published in the December edition of the peer-reviewed journal Social Science & Medicine, challenges one of the common attitudes about suicide in Las Vegas, Wray said. There’s a general resistance by Las Vegas leaders to admit the extent of the problem, he said, and suicide prevention is “not at the top of anyone’s agenda.”

“Given the magnitude of the problem, one can argue it should be,” he said.

The study does not answer the Las Vegas version of the chicken and egg conundrum: Are suicidal people attracted to Las Vegas, or does something about the city lead people to kill themselves?

The scenarios that explain the high rate of suicides in Las Vegas vary and need further research, Wray said.

“One would be ‘gambler despair’ — someone visits Las Vegas, bets his house away and decides to end it all,” he said. “Another would be that those predisposed to suicide disproportionately choose Las Vegas to reside or visit. And, finally, there may be a ‘contagion’ effect where people are emulating the suicides of others ... Some people may be going there intent on self-destruction.”

Wray said the evidence points to something about Las Vegas that causes more suicides. The finding that suicide risk remains high in Las Vegas while there are declines in other counties suggests there could be something harmful about the city, Wray said. He also noted the finding that the risk of suicide is reduced when people leave Las Vegas.

“If suicide was really about the people, it seems they would take their suicide risk with them,” he said. Experts have speculated that problems with addiction to gambling and drugs and alcohol, lack of mental health resources and rapid growth also may contribute to the suicide problem.

Las Vegas’ fast growth amplifies “social isolation, fragmentation and low social cohesion, all of which have long been identified as correlates of suicide,” Wray said.

The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars program.

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