'It's overwhelming': Rural Texas county grapples with high suicide rate

Christopher Anderson, the son of Jana Anderson.
Christopher Anderson, the son of Jana Anderson, took his life 21 years ago in San Angelo, Texas. He was 22 years old. (Courtesy of Jana Anderson)

Christopher Anderson was a healthy 22-year-old college student in San Angelo, Texas. He worked as a personal trainer at a health club in the area and had a girlfriend whom he lived with for a couple of years.

He would feel down at times but never showed signs of wanting to take his own life, according to his adoptive mother, Jana Anderson.

He and his girlfriend eventually broke up, and one night they got into a confrontation, his mother says. Christopher went home and shot himself.

“My son’s girlfriend was the one who found him and, of course, she was devastated. She took her life exactly like he did six years later ... and she left a 2-year-old that her parents have been raising. She never got over it and the guilt and just the trauma, and the trauma of finding him,” Anderson told Yahoo News.

“I got probably hundreds of calls and letters and visits from people that knew him through the health club,” she said. “They all said he was the happiest person they knew.”

That was 21 years ago. But Anderson says that sometimes it feels like it happened yesterday.

Christopher’s death is among many tragic stories of lives lost to suicide in Tom Green County, where San Angelo is located. For more than two decades, the community has been grappling with a rate of suicide that’s disproportionately high given the number of people who live there.

An evening view of a pathway lined with illuminated bags at the annual Shine a Light event hosted by Zero Suicide Services.
The Zero Suicide Services program run by West Texas Counseling & Guidance hosts an annual Shine a Light event, which honors the memories of those who have died by suicide. (Becca Sankey Photography)

Mental health experts in the area of roughly 119,000 residents, having unearthed the startling problem, have created multiple programs, including one that allows them to meet with families at the scene of a perceived suicide. Some loved ones of those who have died have also created a support group.

Secluded deep in West Central Texas, Tom Green County has an average suicide rate of 19.3 per 100,000 people, according to data from the past 23 years provided by San Angelo-based West Texas Counseling & Guidance (WTCG). By comparison, the state of Texas has a rate of 13.2 per 100,000 people, and in the U.S., the rate is 13.5, according to 2020 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of November, 21 people in Tom Green County have taken their own lives in 2022. But mental health workers on the ground are trying to share coping skills and find ways to best support the community.

“Ours has been significantly higher since, I think, 1999 [than] both the state and national average,” said Dusty McCoy of the county’s suicide rate. McCoy is a licensed professional counselor and the CEO of WTCG.

Sitting alongside McCoy, Nicole Elliott, a licensed social worker and director of WTCG’s Zero Suicide Services program, echoed his words. “It’s overwhelming for me because I know that a lot of Texans pride themselves on taking care of their neighbors, and there’s also this kind of ‘pick yourself up by the bootstraps.’

“That doesn’t always work when we need mental health services,” she told Yahoo News. “There’s times that we need support. I do desperately, in my role, I want to make sure somehow to find a way to narrow that gap and bring that rate down.”

San Angelo is described as a frontier town turned booming community that represents about 100,000 people within the county. McCoy describes it as a city that’s hard to find unless you’re looking, with no major highway nearby and the closest major city, Abilene, being about 87 miles away.

McCoy and Elliott are part of a group of mental health professionals hoping to make a change in San Angelo and Tom Green County by introducing more awareness and resources. Data compiled by Zero Suicide Services paints a sobering picture:

  • Out of 126 suicide deaths in Tom Green County since 2016, most of the cases were of people who identified as white (74), followed by Hispanic (22). Men accounted for a majority of the deaths (at least 104).

  • Residents ages 35 to 55 accounted for 50 deaths, more than the 15-24 and 25-34 age groups combined (35 deaths). Nationally, people between the ages of 35 and 64 make up almost 50% of all suicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • In Tom Green County, guns were used in 67 deaths, more than any other method.

“We need to be able to get services to these rural areas,” Elliott said. “It’s also an area that has a high propensity of firearm ownership. “It’s not ‘take away your guns,’ but we do want to secure them. Let’s make them safe, because you know, we have these impulsive decisions, we want to make sure that you’re able to stay safe ... when you’re in psychological pain.”

A photo illustration of a man sitting in a chair in a dark room looking down with his head in his hands.

As Elliott mentioned, the issue of suicide in rural areas extends beyond Tom Green County and affects similar communities nationwide.

“I’m painting kind of a broad brushstroke picture here, certainly there’s exceptions to this, but we do see on average, that our rural communities have higher suicide rates than our non-rural communities,” Shawna Hite-Jones, a public health professional who specializes in mental health and suicide prevention, told Yahoo News. “What has been really interesting is the CDC has actually done research that has shown that the more rural you get, the higher suicide rates tend to become, and so that’s a really kind of disheartening trend.”

Hite-Jones, the senior manager of prevention initiatives for international nonprofit Education Development Center, grew up in a rural community in Ohio and says these areas have a special place in her heart as she works to promote prevention efforts while increasing awareness of risk factors as well as protective factors when someone is in a crisis.

She stressed that there’s no definitive answer for what’s happening in an individual’s life but that rural communities do face specific challenges.

The silhouette of a young person sitting on a skateboard in a dark hallway.
The “988” National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number launched on July 16. (Getty Images)

“We know that our suicide rates tend to be higher in our adult men population, particularly our middle-aged adult men, and our rural communities tend to have older populations versus younger populations,” Hite-Jones said.

“We also know that our rural communities have less access to mental health care,” she added. “They also have high access to means for suicide because in every home, including my own, we have firearms, so if someone’s struggling, they have readily available methods to die by suicide. So all of that kind of interplays.”

The Zero Suicide effort is a nationwide framework, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. States commit to providing more comprehensive suicide prevention services in health and behavioral health care systems by partnering with four regional support centers to provide training and technical support.

“The Texas Health and Human Services Commission contracts with Local Mental Health Authorities and Local Behavioral Health Authorities to implement the Zero Suicide framework, which is designed to improve suicide care,” Jennifer Ruffcorn, a spokeswoman with Texas HHS, said in a statement to Yahoo News.

Close to 46,000 people took their own lives in the U.S. in 2020, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. That made suicide the 12th-leading cause of death nationwide. In addition, a startling 1.2 million people attempted to take their own life, and 12.2 million adults contemplated suicide. That’s why experts say identifying people who are struggling before they act on their impulses is critical.

Because of her experience and after meeting others who had lost loved ones to suicide, Anderson helped create the support group Survivors of Suicide (SOS) for people who have lost a loved one to suicide.

She also joined the Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors (LOSS) team, a group of volunteers and mental health professionals who respond to the scenes of local suicides. A response team consists of one survivor and one mental health professional who provide support and information about resources, and serve as “an installation of hope” for their loss.

Dr. Frank Campbell speaking into a microphone.
Dr. Frank Campbell, the creator of the Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors (LOSS) team, was the keynote speaker for this year’s Shine a Light event. (Becca Sankey Photography)

“We had a veteran family that was here, their 15-year-old son died by suicide, shot himself in the bathroom. They came in and they told the therapist that they ... spent the weekend, the daughter, wife, father, cleaning up this bathroom,” said McCoy of West Texas Counseling & Guidance. “And we were like, oh, my God, look at this ... so we got a trauma on top of a trauma and we were like, we can’t have this, we cannot have this. So we went out and found individual donors who donated to this [LOSS team] fund.”

“Whenever there’s been a completed suicide, we will go to the scene with resources, and some of those are immediate resources that they might need, like justice of the peace and information, veteran’s information, help with burial. We also have grants that provide us a cleanup fund,” Elliott said.

Elliott and McCoy, along with the LOSS team, believe there are several solutions to getting Tom Green County to its goal of zero suicides and that it will take not only them but the entire community.

“Check in on your neighbor, your family, you know, make sure that they’re doing OK. Ask the questions, ‘Hey, how are you doing? What’s going on?’ And, as awkward as it is, ask them, ‘Are you having thoughts of suicide?’” McCoy said. “A lot of people are afraid that, ‘If I tell people what I’m thinking, I’m going to end up locked up in a psychiatric hospital.’ Well, that’s not true. That’s not true. We can work with those thoughts on an outpatient basis, and you’re not going to get locked up.”

A luminary on the sidewalk reads: I miss you!
Each luminary along the sidewalk at the Shine a Light event was created by a survivor in honor of their loved one. "There are 800 luminaries that span the circumference of a one mile loop on our river walk," said Nicole Elliott, director of Zero Suicide Services. (Becca Sankey Photography)

“I think one of the biggest things I would emphasize is to let them know that they’re not alone in this struggle. I think it can become very isolating from a community standpoint,” Hite-Jones said.

Available resources:

Suicide and Crisis Line (English, Spanish): Dial 988

Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741741

The Trevor Lifeline, Crisis Intervention, LGBTQ Youth: Dial 1.866.488.7386 or Text “START” to 678-678

Veteran Crisis Line: Dial 988, then press 1

Veteran Crisis Text: Text to 838255

Community-Led Suicide Prevention project