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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

After a few weeks, he was hired to work on a new airport terminal. But on July 15, 2010, John walked into the house grim-faced.

"Today was my turn," he told his wife.

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In 2006 and 2007, Clark County recorded about 350 suicides, according to the coroner's office. In 2010, there were 405, including John Beza.

Suicide rates tend to fluctuate by no more than 3% a year in a large metropolitan area, researcher Wray said. "When it moves 10%, it's like, OK, that was a quake."

While no one can make a definitive link, one possible cause of the high number is Clark County's stubborn unemployment rate. By 2009, it had soared above 14%, and it has yet to dip back below 12%. Several studies have shown that prolonged joblessness heightens the chance of suicide.

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.

When researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently crunched nearly 80 years' worth of data, they found the suicide rate per 100,000 Americans generally shot up when the economy was sluggish, mainly among working-age adults.

For someone already at risk of suicide, the loss of income or sense of purpose could add another, seemingly insurmountable burden, much like divorce or a child's death. "Is that when hopelessness becomes overwhelming? Perhaps," said Timothy Classen, a health economist at Loyola University in Chicago, who has also studied suicide.

He said workers in an industry that has been decimated are particularly vulnerable. That could well apply to the once-robust construction industry in Las Vegas, which shed 65,900 jobs -- a 62% drop -- since December 2005, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.

Considering Nevada's long-running struggle with suicide, said David Stern, president of the advocacy group Mental Heath America, "it's like you had a horrible accident ... and then other people kept running into the cars."

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After John Beza's second layoff, he grew more subdued, more easily frustrated. He woke up gasping from dreams he refused to describe to Megan.

Still, she had no reason to think John might harm himself. From what she knew, he'd never suffered from depression. There was no history of suicide in his family.

In September 2010, Megan was laid off too. The next month, trying to make the best of their empty days, the family drove to the California coast. They took Jacob whale-watching and to Sea World.

"Mom, Dad, I don't want to leave!" he said on the last day.

To Megan's surprise, John teared up.

"I don't want to go, either."

After John died, Megan discovered that he had been doctor-shopping for Lortab, the painkiller he was prescribed after he broke his collarbone.

Megan found prescriptions John had acquired from five or six doctors over time, including one written for her after she had a miscarriage. Megan was wary of painkillers, convinced they were addictive. Maybe that's why John hid them from her.

The coroner's office told her that, at the time of his death, John's system was clean. Megan thought of how in the weeks before, he'd been agitated and complained of chest pains. Was he going through withdrawal along with everything else?

After Megan found a support group for survivors of suicide victims, she learned that there were no definitive answers. Even families of people who'd written goodbye notes still wrestled with questions.

Last fall, Megan was hired back at Lockheed Martin. She and Jacob remain in their home, where the good memories outweigh one terrible one. Megan keeps John's ashes in a cherry wood box carved with a picture of the sailboat they long talked about buying. She and Jacob recently sprinkled some in the Bear River in Idaho, where John and Jacob had gone fishing.

Now, when thoughts creep into her head of John's last morning, Megan tries to think of something else. Their wedding day. Jacob's birth. The moments John looked happy -- before life went sour.

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ashley.powers@latimes.com

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