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The Picture of Mental Health: Minnesota's Unusually Low Suicide Rate

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Although Minnesotans may not enjoy the harsh cold weather and long winters the state endures year after year, there is little evidence to suggest Gopher State residents are suffering the degree of severe depression or mental illnesses experienced by many other states across the country – illnesses that sometimes contribute to suicide.

In fact, although most states with high suicide rates are located in the more secluded, northwestern parts of the nation, a Smart Politics analysis of suicide rates and population density of the United States finds Minnesota to be an outlier: a state with low population density but also a low suicide rate.

Smart Politics conducted a bivariate correlation analysis of U.S. state population density and suicide rates and finds that the two variables are indeed negatively related (-.688, significant at the .001 level). In other words, high suicide rates are associated with states that have low population densities. Conversely, low suicide rates are associated with states that have high population densities.

In fact, of the 10 states with the sparsest population densities across the country (Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Mexico, Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada, and Utah), eight suffer the Top 10 highest suicide rates in the nation (Montana (#1), Alaska (#2), Nevada (#3), New Mexico (#4), Wyoming (#6), Idaho (#7), South Dakota (#9), and Utah (#10)).

Moreover, each of the Top 7 most densely populated states in the country all rank among the Bottom 10 states for suicide rates: New York (#50), New Jersey (#49), Rhode Island (#48), Massachusetts (#47), Connecticut (#46), Maryland (#44), and Delaware (#41).

However, Minnesota, and a few other Midwestern states, buck this trend. Along with Nebraska (#43) and Iowa (#35), Minnesota (#31) ranks among the Bottom 20 states in the nation for population density, but also among the Bottom 15 states for suicide rates. In fact, Minnesota’s suicide rate ranking (#40) is lower than every other state ranking outside of the Top 13 most densely populated in the nation.

While research on whether winter climates and seasonal affective disorder causes higher suicide rates is mixed, the vast majority of those who commit suicide across all age groups are diagnosed with mental or substance abuse disorders.

Does this mean Minnesotans suffer from a lower average rate of mental illness compared to residents in other states? Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) suggests this is so.

According to data compiled by Smart Politics from a 2002 report by SAMHSA’s National Mental Health Information Center, Minnesota has the 14th lowest rate of residents diagnosed with serious mental illness across the country, and the lowest serious mental illness rate across all 12 Midwestern states, at 3.75 percent.

All 11 other Midwestern states rank among the Top 25 states in the nation in terms of the highest diagnostic rates of serious mental illness, with North Dakota second in the nation.

Of course, one reason for a low diagnosis of mental illness could be due to a state’s lack of funding of mental health services to identify and treat patients. Minnesota, however, has the 12th highest per capita mental health services expenditures in the country (at $123 per person), and the highest among all 12 Midwestern states, according to 2005 data compiled by the Kaiser Foundation.

In short, no other Midwestern state is spending more money than Minnesota to diagnose serious mental illness among its residents, and yet Minnesota also has the lowest rate of such illnesses in the region.

But the relationship between mental health services expenditures and diagnosing mental illnesses is not always so clean. West Virginia, by contrast, has the highest rate of diagnosed mental illnesses in the country, but only has the 36th highest level of per capita mental health services expenditures.

Alaska, meanwhile, has the 2nd highest suicide rate in the country, despite having the nation’s largest per capita mental health services budget – at $250 per person, or 22.2 percent higher than the state with the second largest budget (New York).

It is therefore difficult to judge to what extent mental health services provided by the State of Minnesota is impacting the mental health of its residents, and, for those extreme cases, its suicide rate. Nonetheless, Minnesota is fortunate to have one of the lowest suicide rates in the nation, and is second only to Illinois for the lowest rate among all Midwestern states.

Population Density vs. Suicide Rates in the United States

State
Population density rank
Suicide rate rank
Alaska
50
2
Wyoming
49
6
Montana
48
1
North Dakota
47
15
South Dakota
46
9
New Mexico
45
4
Idaho
44
7
Nebraska
43
37
Nevada
42
3
Utah
41
10
Kansas
40
18
Oregon
39
11
Maine
38
23
Colorado
37
5
Oklahoma
36
12
Iowa
35
35
Arkansas
34
13
Arizona
33
7
Mississippi
32
20
Minnesota
31
40
Vermont
30
24
West Virginia
29
17
Missouri
28
22
Alabama
27
28
Texas
26
35
Washington
25
19
Louisiana
24
33
Wisconsin
23
28
Kentucky
22
16
South Carolina
21
26
New Hampshire
20
26
Tennessee
19
14
Georgia
18
39
Indiana
17
25
Michigan
16
37
North Carolina
15
28
Virginia
14
32
Hawaii
13
45
Illinois
12
43
California
11
42
Pennsylvania
10
33
Ohio
9
31
Florida
8
20
New York
7
50
Delaware
6
41
Maryland
5
44
Connecticut
4
46
Massachusetts
3
47
Rhode Island
2
48
New Jersey
1
49
Note: Suicide death data compiled from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Health Statistics, Division of Vital Statistics, National Vital Statistics Report Volume 56, Number 10, April, 2008. Data on population density compiled from the U.S. Census 2007 population estimates.

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