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COLUMN ONE

A desert where suicide thrives

The recession made a troubling statistic even worse in Nevada. For one widow, answers are hard to come by.

April 13, 2012|Ashley Powers
  • Megan Beza touches her son Jacob's cheek after he said, "I miss you, Daddy" while saying his evening prayers. Beza has been raising Jacob as a single parent since her husband, John, committed suicide in 2010.
Megan Beza touches her son Jacob's cheek after he said, "I miss… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

HENDERSON, NEV. — After it happened, Megan Beza was consumed with figuring out why. Did her husband's struggle with painkillers play a role? His months of fruitless job-hunting?

But with suicide, there are rarely tidy answers. What is known is that southern Nevada's unusually high suicide rate spiked with the recession, and Megan thinks that must explain, at least in part, what happened the morning of Oct. 25, 2010.

John Beza had just returned from dropping off their 4-year-old son, Jacob, at preschool. Megan was taking a bath.

"I'm going to the doctor," John told her.

"Why?"

"I don't feel good."

"What hurts?"

John, usually easygoing, snapped.

"I just don't feel good!"

The couple bickered, and John knocked Megan's cellphone into their large Roman tub. He stormed out. Megan wrapped herself in a towel and rushed after him. In their bedroom she heard something rustle.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, April 14, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Nevada suicides: An article in the April 13 Section A about suicides in Nevada misspelled the last name of the president of the group Mental Health America. He is David Shern, not Stern.

"John?"

She tried to open the walk-in closet. Locked. John slid his cellphone to her under the door. She heard a click. Then a loud bang.

"JOHN!"

Megan somehow kicked through the bottom of the door. John was sprawled on his back, the .357 Magnum they'd bought for protection still in his hand. The bullet had passed through his head and punched a hole in the ceiling. Megan called 911, and a dispatcher tried to tell her how to clear his airways of blood.

John's chest rose and fell, rose and fell, then stopped.

He was 39.

--

Long before the recession saddled Nevada with the country's top foreclosure and unemployment rates, the Silver State wrestled with another measure of despair. For about three decades, the state's suicide rate -- most recently 19.1 deaths per 100,000 residents -- has been among the nation's highest. The national average is 12 per 100,000.

Most of Nevada's suicides occur around Las Vegas, where nearly three-fourths of the state's population lives. A study by sociologist Matt Wray and his colleagues found that between 1979 and 2004, the odds of suicide among Vegas residents were about 50% greater than in other large metropolitan areas.

Statistically speaking, leaving Las Vegas was enough to lessen the chance of someone taking his or her life.

Suicide remains a relatively rare form of death in the United States. Certain cultural factors can heighten the risk, and some of those are essentially the building blocks of modern Las Vegas.

The insta-neighborhoods of the once-fast-growing region offer newcomers little sense of community, and strong social ties help whittle down the likelihood of suicide.

Nevada's go-it-alone, frontier ethos is another possible contributor, researchers say.

The majority of suicides involve firearms. And while it's easy to buy a gun here, a lean-government mentality has curbed access to mental health care, a significant factor in cutting suicide risk.

Las Vegas also may draw people more likely to kill themselves -- those struggling with addiction, mental health problems or failed relationships. People grasping for second or third chances.

"It's certainly been the mythology that this is where people came to reinvent themselves," said Wray, a Temple University associate professor who spent years at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

About one-tenth of people who commit suicide in Clark County each year do not have local identification, suggesting they were newcomers or possibly visitors who traveled to Las Vegas for the same reason others visit the Golden Gate Bridge: to end their lives.

In the first few years after 2000, the number of suicides in Clark County remained relatively steady, about 300 a year.

Then the recession struck.

--

Megan struggled to explain to their son what had happened: "Daddy went to heaven," she told Jacob. "His brain was sick." Then she settled into something of a fog, retracing her relationship with John repeatedly, searching for clues.

The two had met in 2001 while racing dirt bikes. He was divorced with two sons, and blushed when someone suggested he take Megan dancing. The next night, they played pool instead. He walked Megan to her car and kissed her hand.

"We were pretty much inseparable after that," said Megan, a 37-year-old with blue-gray eyes and a cherubic face.

They called each other "baby," loved camping and the ocean, and had paintings made for each other with maritime themes. They spruced up a stucco house in suburban Henderson.

John had long worked with his hands, installing cooling and heating systems. Not long after Jacob was born in 2006, the work started to dry up. The foreclosure crisis slashed the need for new homes, while the recession emptied hotel rooms. In 2007, John broke his right collarbone but kept putting off surgery.

"He didn't want to show any weakness," Megan said.

In 2009, John was laid off for the first time. Megan tried to comfort him. She was working at Lockheed Martin, and they had some money socked away.

"I don't ever want to come home and tell you I can't support our family," John replied.

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