Rural Suicide: One California County’s Fight To Save Lives

A rural pocket of Northern California is seeing some of the highest rates of suicide in the state. We’re exploring the mental health crisis in Amador County, and what’s being done to solve it.

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Q&A: How CapRadio Found Data On Suicides In Amador County

Vanessa S. Nelson / Capital Public Radio

A "hope" sign hangs at the Sierra Wind Wellness and Recovery Center in Jackson.

Vanessa S. Nelson / Capital Public Radio

Six months ago, CapRadio’s Sammy Caiola set out to learn more about who dies by suicide in rural California, particularly Amador County. She started by gathering data about suicide rates and at-risk populations. Here, we look at where the numbers came from and what they reveal about the problem.

Q: How do you know that Amador County has the third highest rate of suicide in California?

A: That statistic is from the California Department of Public Health’s 2018 County Health Status Profiles. The study’s authors averaged the number of deaths by suicide in 2014, 2015 and 2016 and divided it by the population of Amador County. Since the study is looking at deaths per 100,000 people and Amador's population is around 37,000, Amador’s numbers were extrapolated. The authors then age-adjusted the rate, a statistical tweak that helps compare populations with different age distributions. The final, age-adjusted rate was 27.9 deaths per 100,000 people, which is California’s third highest rate behind Mariposa and Sierra counties.

Q: How does Amador County’s population affect its suicide rate?

A: Amador County’s small population size does affect its suicide rate. As mentioned above, statisticians have to extrapolate Amador’s population and number of suicide deaths to compare it with other counties in California. However, it’s still true that the rate of suicide deaths in Amador is high relative to its population. In a county of about 37,000 people, between six and 16 people died by suicide in each year Sammy examined, and that has a huge impact on the community.

Q: How do you know who died?

A: Sammy gathered data from several sources. Death certificates have some demographic data and those certificates are stored at the Amador County Public Health Department. Former Amador County Public Health Officer Bob Hartmann shared data from 2010 to 2014, and current county public health officer Dr. Rita Kerr shared data for 2015 to 2017.

Amador County residents who die by suicide outside of the county are not counted in this data. Moreover, this data only includes deaths the coroner could definitively mark as suicides — for example, car crashes and overdoses with suicidal intent may not be represented.

Some of the data from the county public health department didn't specify whether the suicides occurred in Mule Creek State Prison in Ione. So Sammy used a combination of state reports about inmate suicides (here and here) to get the details.

Here’s a quick snapshot of who died by suicide in the years Sammy examined.

  • There were 85 suicides in Amador County between 2010 and 2017.
  • Eighty-eight percent of people were men.
  • Twenty-six percent of people had military experience.
  • Thirty-three percent of people were over age 60.
  • Nine percent of people were inmates at Mule Creek State Prison.
  • Fifty-five percent of people used a gun.

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