The Deadliness of Small Town Life
The day Johnny Maxwell killed himself is a day I’ll never forget.
I felt something was wrong from the moment I awoke. The tension in the air fogged my head and translated into every step. As I got up to face the day, my movements grew heavier. I got to school and sat down in class. The gnawing in my chest and the ringing in my ears were relentless. Something was wrong. I could feel it in every fiber of my being.
At 3:02 pm, I found out that a former classmate of mine committed suicide. He was a freshman in high school.
That entire day, all of my social media was flooded: Snapchats with condolences, Instagrams of throwbacks and memories—the heartbreaking, prayer-filled Tweets. He was a student at Queen Creek High School, in a small town called Queen Creek, Arizona, where I lived for two years. He was a teenage boy who did not deserve this ending.
Johnny was not the first Queen Creek student to end his life. According to Fox 10 Phoenix, five students at QCHS have committed suicide since May 2017.
The Center of Disease Control and Prevention names suicide as the third leading cause of death in kids 10 to 14 and second leading cause of death in youths ages 15-24 in 2015. This is the result of a spike in teen suicides over the last 17 years. Rural areas have suffered a 40 percent increase in suicide since 1999, according to the American Council On Science and Health. Researchers have searched for what could possibly be the cause of these rates and they have discovered a variety of factors—from the opioid crisis to poverty due to the 2008 economic recession.
However, the suicide epidemic seems to have hit rural areas like Queen Creek particularly hard. According to NPR, small, rural towns in the United States have the highest rates for teen suicide in the country—and, from my own experience, I can understand why. When I lived in Queen Creek, there was a strong lack of diversity. Not many people fall outside the white, conservative, Mormon category. There isn’t anything wrong with being those things, but there is a great amount of isolation and stigma for people who do not fit into these boxes. Rural towns like mine tend to have passionate views, as well as overall ignominy for anything less than perfect mental health.
Anya Edwards, a freshman at Boston Arts Academy, used to live in a small town called Hoosick Falls in New York. She remembers that there wasn’t much to do, and believes that living in a tiny town can be very depressing. “I think that a lot of the kids felt like there was nowhere to go, and they were going to be there their entire lives—stuck,” she said.
Small towns have always been portrayed a certain way—whimsical, close-knit, behind the times, and shielded. There is some underlying truth to that. However, while popular TV shows like “Twin Peaks,” “The Vampire Diaries” and “Gilmore Girls” depict this rural town lifestyle, they fail to ever discuss suicide.
It’s like sex education. A Health and Human Service statistic report shows that areas that do not equip young people with safe sex practices tend to have higher rates of teen pregnancy. Similarly, if students are not equipped with mental health resources, we see the same results—pregnancy paralleling suicide.
“If schools started talking about suicide awareness at a younger age and offered students more support, the suicide rates would definitely start to drop," said Alex Hancock, a freshman at QCHS. Hancock didn’t get education on mental health until high school, but wishes it started in middle school.
"My little sister started middle school as a sixth grader this year,” Hancock said. “A couple weeks ago, she came home in tears because her friend, who is also in sixth grade, drank hand sanitizer during school in the hopes that it would kill her.”
The bottom line is that teens in small towns are not supported in a way that prevents suicide. In Arizona, Project Connect Four is trying to change that by raising awareness and striving to help the teens there, after all the tragedy in the last year.
“We’re not the suicide experts. Nobody wants to be a suicide expert,” said Christina Nguyen, president of Project Connect 4. “But what we try to do is align ourselves with people who have that knowledge and information to come in and, for example, do workshops or assemblies.”
Nguyen also said, “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” And it’s true. We hear these messages of “you matter” and “suicide isn’t the answer” all the time. It can sound generic and fake, in one ear and out the other. But, they’re true.
There are people fighting to make a change for all of us. Nguyen suggests that the best way for other small towns to start combating teen suicide is by finding people and groups that are also taking action, and sharing information with them.
There are many resources taken for granted or ignored. And because of this, people like Johnny Maxwell, are gone. You never really understand all of the numbers and statistics until it happens to you.
If you or a friend is contemplating suicide or self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, available 24 hours every day.
*Maxwell’s name has been changed.