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In Las Vegas, Nevada, the odds of dying by suicide are strikingly high - twice as high as the rest of the country. That's according to research in the current issue of the journal "Social Science and Medicine." As Michelle Trudeau reports, there's just something about the neon city that poses a risk to residents and visitors alike.

MICHELLE TRUDEAU: These days, Matt Wray lives in Philadelphia. He's a sociologist there at Temple University. But he used to live in Las Vegas and there, he was struck by the city's historically high suicide rate, about one suicide per day, twice the national average. It made Matt Wray wonder whether exposure to Las Vegas, the city - not just its gambling casinos, but the whole town - increases the risk of suicide. It was a question he and colleagues from Harvard University tackled by looking at death records, 40 million death records, from across the country, spanning 30 years.

Professor MATT WRAY (Sociology, Temple University): And those deaths included about 600,000 suicides.

TRUDEAU: Now, suicide records tell you not only how someone died, but also where - whether at home, out of town, or out of state.

Professor WRAY: So we're comparing, in this case, Las Vegas to everyplace else.

TRUDEAU: Indeed, Wray found that residents of Las Vegas had a 50 percent higher risk of suicide than folks living elsewhere in the country. But he also found something quite surprising about those residents.

Professor WRAY: Residents of Las Vegas who leave Las Vegas - that is, they take some kind of hiatus or break from Las Vegas, they go out of the county - their risk for suicide goes down.

TRUDEAU: So leaving Las Vegas somehow protects residents from dying by suicide. Now, what about the 40 million visitors who come to Las Vegas every year? It turns out visitors had an even greater suicide risk than residents.

Professor WRAY: We found that those who visit Las Vegas, compared to visiting elsewhere, see their risk go up by twofold.

TRUDEAU: So leaving Las Vegas decreases the risk, and living or visiting there increases the risk. One explanation for this, says Wray, could be the fast-growth, boomtown nature of Vegas.

Professor WRAY: You've got transients. You've got massive population growth and demographic change. This certainly is what characterizes the last 25 or 30 years of Nevada's history.

TRUDEAU: Such rapid growth can lead to a lot of social isolation and a lack of community cohesiveness. Now, this might explain the elevated suicide risk among residents, but it doesn't explain the even higher suicide rate among visitors to Vegas. Suicide researcher Morton Silverman from the University of Chicago suggests another possible explanation.

Dr. MORTON SILVERMAN (Associate Professor of Psychiatry, University of Chicago): Those who are predisposed to suicide disproportionately choose Las Vegas to either reside in or to visit. So Las Vegas would then be a destination for individuals who are suicidal.

TRUDEAU: Mike Murphy has lived in Vegas for nearly 30 years. He's the county coroner there, investigating every death, every suicide. Visitors to Vegas, he says, who kill themselves there are generally not reacting to gambling losses.

Dr. MIKE MURPHY (Clark County Coroner): The vast majority of those that came to Las Vegas did not come here and lose their money and then commit suicide. They came here with the idea of making their last kind of hurrah, and then they took their lives. And they did it so that they wouldn't be doing that at home, where their family members would find them. They were going to another location.

TRUDEAU: And Murphy has also noted something else recently within the past several months.

Dr. MURPHY: We are seeing a few more incidences of what we call homicide-suicides, where someone takes the life of their significant other and then their own life. And you have to look at that and say, is that a direct result of what we're seeing economically? Is it a result of a foreclosure? Is it a result of the aging community and the health issues and concerns for those folks? I don't know yet.

TRUDEAU: But no matter what the causes for the exceptionally high rate of suicides among both residents and visitors to Las Vegas, researcher Matt Wray says proven preventive measures should be reinforced there, such as training doctors to better recognize the symptoms of depression and suicidal behaviors, and safeguarding gun access, the most common and lethal means of completing suicide. For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau.

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