Hunter Gossett, 19, worked at J&Y Auto with his friend Thane Morgan, a high school student who died by suicide in November 2021. As a survivor of multiple attempts, Gossett is too familiar with the challenge of suicide. “We will never understand his pain or what he was going through,” Gossett says of Morgan. “He never gave any warning signs or red flags or tells or giveaways —at least that me or anyone else saw—that he was in danger of taking his own life. He seemed like a really happy kid.”
Brandon Kapelow
October 13, 2022 11:37 AM EDT

Brandon Kapelow is a filmmaker and photographer from Wyoming. He is a suicide-loss survivor and a peer-support facilitator for SOLACE and the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

I was raised in the wilds of western Wyoming and spent my childhood exploring the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, camping in Idaho and Montana, and visiting family in Colorado and New Mexico. It was a beautiful but difficult place to grow up. Apart from Alaska, these are the states that continually rank highest for deaths by suicide, earning the Intermountain West the ominous designation “the Suicide Belt.”

My father made his first suicide attempt when I was 8 years old. He struggled for years with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and succumbed to his illness after four more attempts, in 2005 at age 64. After seeing friends and family members hospitalized or prescribed medication for suicidal ideation or attempts, I’ve come to realize how widespread this issue is for thousands of people living in small communities across the West, like the one where I grew up. Many of these Americans are struggling to process the complexities of grief that come with living through a generation or more of suicide loss, yearning for support and connection while surrounded by a culture that is rarely willing to offer or accept it.

I decided to travel to Catron County, a high-desert region in New Mexico along the Arizona border with the highest rate of suicide death of any county in the contiguous U.S. from 2010 to 2020, at 63.2 per 100,000 people. (The average national rate for the same time period was about 13.2.) I wanted to meet people who were living at the heart of this issue—to hear their stories and provide a window into their grief, as it mirrored my own. I’ve always found catharsis in talking about my experiences with suicide, and I hoped that this project might provide similar relief to those who chose to sit and speak with me. (Some asked that I omit their last names to help protect their families’ privacy.)

In the absence of formal behavioral-health resources, churches like the Fence Lake Community Church help people cope with suicidal ideation or grief. “A major part of my ministry—I call it group therapy on Sunday morning—is to take out of the Scriptures these verses that build people, lift people,” says Dr. Gary Knouf, a pastor at the Quemado Cowboy Church. “Almost everybody, after they leave Sunday, is full of hope.” (Brandon Kapelow)
In the absence of formal behavioral-health resources, churches like the Fence Lake Community Church help people cope with suicidal ideation or grief. “A major part of my ministry—I call it group therapy on Sunday morning—is to take out of the Scriptures these verses that build people, lift people,” says Dr. Gary Knouf, a pastor at the Quemado Cowboy Church. “Almost everybody, after they leave Sunday, is full of hope.”
Brandon Kapelow
Ron, 68, is part of a four-generation ranching family and underwent several reconstructive surgeries following a suicide attempt. “It’s hard to look me in the eye, and it's hard for folks to deal with that without a shudder going down their back,” he says. “That’s a real burden that I have from doing this. I can't just sit down with a friend and have a drink like I used to because it makes them uncomfortable for me to be around.”
Brandon Kapelow
Cresta, 69, holds a photo of herself with her friend Dave Moller, who died by suicide in 2012. Cresta herself has also battled with periods of suicidal ideation. “Out here, we don’t have mental-health doctors. Personally, I need someone that can monitor me closely because of previous negative side effects from depression medications, such as feeling suicidal. We just don’t have those services in a rural area. The most you have is somebody who’s gone through something and helps you. That’s about it.”
Brandon Kapelow
Of the four homes on this short stretch of road in Alma, N.M., part of Catron County, two had owners who died by suicide. (Brandon Kapelow)
Of the four homes on this short stretch of road in Alma, N.M., part of Catron County, two had owners who died by suicide.
Brandon Kapelow

Catron County covers a vast area of 7,000 square miles and is home to nearly 3,600 people, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Among them are more than twice as many veterans, seniors, and Native Americans than in the average county: three groups at highest risk for suicide death. The population has experienced a 4% decline from the decade prior that reflects a national trend of urbanization that has hollowed out communities across rural America. “I spent my whole life being a cowboy, working on ranches,” Ron, the eldest of a four-generation ranching family, told me. “I think that’s why you see these rural areas having such a high incidence [of suicide]—all of a sudden, we’ve become irrelevant.” Despite a life of continuous employment in ranching, Ron struggled to make ends meet after a heart issue caused medical bills to start piling up. His financial problems and feelings of low self-worth collided, and in the winter of 2019, Ron attempted suicide.

Photographing Ron, I saw a version of my father staring back at me. He, like Ron, survived a suicide attempt that resulted in significant facial damage and spent months undergoing reconstructive surgeries and rehabilitative care before resuming a life forever altered. Meeting people like Ron often required leading with my own story, in an effort to pierce the dense clouds of stigma that still loom heavily over the West. What I didn’t expect was how often I’d find daylight.

Early in my trip I stopped at J&Y, a local auto-body shop in the town of Quemado, to get air for a leaky tire. Owner Jerry Armstrong, who also serves as the volunteer fire chief, an EMT, and a church deacon, asked what brought me to Catron; when I told him, he started to cry. One of his employees, a high school student named Thane Morgan, had taken his life just three weeks prior. Armstrong employs a number of local teens in his shop, and he worries about the ripple effects of Morgan’s suicide. “I see those kids and it’s like, How many of ’em are going to follow suit?” he told me. Morgan was not the first teen at J&Y to attempt suicide. “I feel guilty a lot of the time for even saying, ‘I’ve also been suicidal before,’ because he’s the one who actually went and did it,” says Hunter Gossett, one of Morgan’s friends at the shop. “I get the reason for wanting to do it. At the same time, I’m still here.”

Suicide contagion among teens is a real phenomenon. In the early 2010s, Reserve Independent School District in Catron County experienced a string of student suicides that prompted administrators to implement a peer-support program in which students were trained to look out for warning signs among classmates. The program was such a success that local administrators wonder if a similar program could be as effective among the county’s adult residents.

Cathy, 69, and Dennis, 75, relax with their support dog Ricky. Cathy has lost relatives to suicide and has survived several attempts. During a recent attempt, she reached out to a hotline for help, an experience she called “a fart in a windstorm. [The responder] was quite young, and I guess I was her first active caller,” she says. “She did not know anything about elderly depression. She just knew what she had to say … 'Do you have a plan? Do you have a significant other?’ I mean, am I talking to a person? We're talking about my life.” Cathy and her husband are starting a support group called Bridge to Hope in order to bring new resources into their community. “There’s a legacy of hopelessness. And I’m trying to be a light.” (Brandon Kapelow)
Cathy, 69, and Dennis, 75, relax with their support dog Ricky. Cathy has lost relatives to suicide and has survived several attempts. During a recent attempt, she reached out to a hotline for help, an experience she called “a fart in a windstorm. [The responder] was quite young, and I guess I was her first active caller,” she says. “She did not know anything about elderly depression. She just knew what she had to say … 'Do you have a plan? Do you have a significant other?’ I mean, am I talking to a person? We're talking about my life.” Cathy and her husband are starting a support group called Bridge to Hope in order to bring new resources into their community. “There’s a legacy of hopelessness. And I’m trying to be a light.”
Brandon Kapelow
The DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) Program in Reserve, Catron’s county seat, is one of the county’s only behavioral-health resources. Deborah Boyer, the clinic’s director and a suicide-loss survivor, sees firsthand the overlapping needs in addressing substance abuse and suicide prevention. “The stigma is horrible here. If somebody uses drugs or has attempted suicide or has mental illness, we just alienate them immediately,” she says. “We need some compassion because it ain't working the way it's going right now.” (Brandon Kapelow)
The DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) Program in Reserve, Catron’s county seat, is one of the county’s only behavioral-health resources. Deborah Boyer, the clinic’s director and a suicide-loss survivor, sees firsthand the overlapping needs in addressing substance abuse and suicide prevention. “The stigma is horrible here. If somebody uses drugs or has attempted suicide or has mental illness, we just alienate them immediately,” she says. “We need some compassion because it ain't working the way it's going right now.”
Brandon Kapelow
Craig Lang, 43, is a pastor, EMT, and head organizer for the Apache Creek Deaf & Youth Ranch, a Baptist summer camp for deaf and disabled young people. In each of his roles, Lang has had extensive exposure to the traumas of suicide. A lack of emergency medical services in Catron County means that local volunteers like Craig must respond to emergencies involving neighbors or even family members.
Brandon Kapelow
Naomi Lang, 13, with her horse Duchess. Naomi’s father Craig was the closest EMT to the scene when Naomi was accidentally run over by a truck, requiring him to perform life-saving duties on his own daughter. At a national EMS conference, Craig learned that providing critical care to friends and peers can carry significant risks of developing PTSD. He had to step back from his role as an EMT after developing suicidal thoughts of his own.
Brandon Kapelow
Locals refer to a home on Main Street in Reserve as the “Death House” since two consecutive occupants died by suicide. (Brandon Kapelow)
Locals refer to a home on Main Street in Reserve as the “Death House” since two consecutive occupants died by suicide.
Brandon Kapelow

Tremendous progress in suicide prevention and mental health has been made in the U.S. in 2022. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline network was launched, and a landmark bipartisan gun safety bill passed, which strengthens red-flag laws and invests in community-based violence-prevention and behavioral-health initiatives. New federal policy changes also make telehealth services for mental-health care more accessible to people in rural areas through Medicare and Medicaid. And a recent survey published by Harris Poll found that 80% of U.S. adults report that they would tell someone if they were having thoughts of suicide—a 13% increase since 2015.

Read More: How 988 Will Transform Americas Approach to Mental Health

But it will be an uphill battle for people in Catron and similarly remote Western counties. Federal data published on Sept. 30 found that in 2021 the U.S. suicide rate rose by 4% after two years of declines. The region’s lack of resources is visible in almost every sector of public health and safety, including law enforcement, emergency medical services (EMS), and mental-health care. There isn’t a state-run hospital in the county—only a medical clinic in Reserve (the county seat) that is funded and operated by a private religious organization. The nearest Veterans Affairs (VA) clinics are several hours away. A single therapist services the region, and they don’t work with children. There’s a wellness center in Reserve, but according to staff there, locals don’t want to be seen walking in the front door.

For 911 emergencies, volunteer EMTs are often dispatched from their homes or workplaces to respond to the incident. If the issue is beyond the capabilities of the local clinic, patients are taken to hospitals in neighboring counties several hours away. The burden on first responders is particularly high due to the nature of living and working in small communities. “We know 80% to 90% of the people that we transport,” says Mike Shriver, an EMS driver and former state policeman. Mike’s wife Vicki Shriver, the Reserve district EMS medical chief, is often confronted with situations for which established protocol is insufficient. “The medical system for behavioral and psychiatric patients is broken,” she says. “There used to be a mandatory 72-hour hold for an attempted suicide … Now sometimes they’re released within 12 to 24 hours, which I don’t think gives the hospital a chance to do a complete evaluation. They’re home before I get the paperwork done.”

As a history buff, veteran, and a suicide-attempt survivor, Larry Iams, 74, maintains a careful relationship with his guns. Most of the time he keeps them locked up at a friend's house in Arizona so that they’re out of reach. (Brandon Kapelow)
As a history buff, veteran, and a suicide-attempt survivor, Larry Iams, 74, maintains a careful relationship with his guns. Most of the time he keeps them locked up at a friend's house in Arizona so that they’re out of reach.
Brandon Kapelow
After student Thane Morgan’s suicide in November 2021, administrators at Quemado High School brought in mental-health professionals to help counsel students. Years earlier, the neighboring Reserve school district had implemented a peer-support system in response to a string of teen suicides. Local officials point to the success of that program in giving students the tools and training to support one another and be alert to warning signs among peers. (Brandon Kapelow)
After student Thane Morgan’s suicide in November 2021, administrators at Quemado High School brought in mental-health professionals to help counsel students. Years earlier, the neighboring Reserve school district had implemented a peer-support system in response to a string of teen suicides. Local officials point to the success of that program in giving students the tools and training to support one another and be alert to warning signs among peers.
Brandon Kapelow
Brenda Johnston, 49, has lost five members of her family—including her younger brother—to suicide. “There’s people that still come and ask how he's doing,” she says. “That’s the hardest part. And they always try to ask why. I’m not going to say to suicide. To me it’s none of anybody’s business.”
Brandon Kapelow
Tristan Leyba, 16, worked with Morgan at J&Y Auto and received a farewell text from him the night that Morgan ended his life. Leyba and Morgan wore matching rings to signify their friendship.
Brandon Kapelow
Rusty Stewart, 47, a pastor at the First Baptist Church of Quemado, used to wear a gun on his hip that he described as his “backup plan.” After a suicide attempt, he was placed under observation at a hospital and told that “people who commit suicide go straight to hell,” he remembers. Stewart now uses his position at the pulpit to try to dispel stigma about mental health. “I think most depressed, suicidal people are probably closer to God than most Christians. I know because they’re the ones that are really reaching out for help.” (Brandon Kapelow)
Rusty Stewart, 47, a pastor at the First Baptist Church of Quemado, used to wear a gun on his hip that he described as his “backup plan.” After a suicide attempt, he was placed under observation at a hospital and told that “people who commit suicide go straight to hell,” he remembers. Stewart now uses his position at the pulpit to try to dispel stigma about mental health. “I think most depressed, suicidal people are probably closer to God than most Christians. I know because they’re the ones that are really reaching out for help.”
Brandon Kapelow

Absent a social safety net, the community must care for itself. This feeling of self-reliance is so ingrained that in 1994, Catron’s county commissioners voted unanimously to pass a nonbinding resolution that stipulated every household should have a gun. In 2019, the county commission again voted unanimously to become part of a national group of “Second Amendment Sanctuaries,” counties across the country that nullify certain gun-safety measures, such as red-flag laws, that were designed in part to help law-enforcement officers remove lethal means from people in suicidal crises.

For Larry Iams, a combat veteran and historic-gunfight reenactor, the issue of firearm safety is urgent. Iams was first attracted to Catron County because of its solitude and its support of the gun culture he cherishes. But following the death of his wife, solitude turned quickly into isolation, and a suicidal episode landed him in a VA hospital. He now locks up his guns at a friend’s home in neighboring Arizona to keep them out of reach. “People that are wanting to do this need somebody that they can trust and talk to,” he says. “That’s going to be hard sometimes because there’s not a lot of people around.”

The stark geography of Catron and other Western counties like it increases the likelihood of social isolation, another major risk factor for suicide. “There’s a lot of solitude in the West. Conditions are harsh,” says Dr. Gary Knouf, pastor at the Quemado Cowboy Church, where Morgan’s memorial service was held. “Maybe the greatest dysfunction in America is loneliness.” The experience of loneliness is not purely emotional; social isolation has harsh physical effects on the body, such as increasing stress-hormone levels, and is a risk factor for suicide.

Kathleen, 84, left, and Rose, 79, play cards at the Glenwood Senior Center. Both have lost family members to suicide. The senior center is one of the few dedicated spaces for social connection for the area’s aging population. (Brandon Kapelow)
Kathleen, 84, left, and Rose, 79, play cards at the Glenwood Senior Center. Both have lost family members to suicide. The senior center is one of the few dedicated spaces for social connection for the area’s aging population.
Brandon Kapelow
Synthetic flowers lie at the grave site of a 56-year-old man who died in January 2021 from complications related to substance abuse—but his mother believes the real cause of death was suicide. Stigma and other factors make it difficult to accurately track suicide deaths, which often leads to underreporting. According to Craig Lang, an EMT, first responders feel inclined to avoid classifying a death as a suicide in order to spare surviving family members stigma and shame. (Brandon Kapelow)
Synthetic flowers lie at the grave site of a 56-year-old man who died in January 2021 from complications related to substance abuse—but his mother believes the real cause of death was suicide. Stigma and other factors make it difficult to accurately track suicide deaths, which often leads to underreporting. According to Craig Lang, an EMT, first responders feel inclined to avoid classifying a death as a suicide in order to spare surviving family members stigma and shame.
Brandon Kapelow
Hayden Littleton, 18, was 8 years old when she lost her father James to suicide. James Littleton was 40 years old when he died in 2012. According to his daughter, James loved working with horses and running cattle, and was never seen without his signature hat, blue jeans, and a long-sleeved shirt. She is reminded of him whenever she sees images of cowboys.
Brandon Kapelow
Jack Diamond, 84, stands at the cemetery in Gabriella, a western replica town built to stage historic-gunfight reenactments and serve as a set for movie productions. Diamond lives and works in the remote settlement with his friend Larry Iams, a Vietnam veteran who was hospitalized by the VA in November 2021 following a suicide attempt.
Brandon Kapelow
A sunrise reflected in the windows at Dave Moller’s house outside of Alma, N.M. When Moller ended his own life, he left his treasured home and belongings to his friend Cresta. (Brandon Kapelow)
A sunrise reflected in the windows at Dave Moller’s house outside of Alma, N.M. When Moller ended his own life, he left his treasured home and belongings to his friend Cresta.
Brandon Kapelow

Seniors especially feel the sting of loneliness. At the southern end of Catron County sits the Glenwood Senior Center, one of the few places left for older residents to gather. “They were going to shut down all the senior centers in Catron County, which, unfortunately, would have probably increased our suicide rate,” says Amy Whetham, the center’s supervisor. “These seniors, it’s the only thing they have.” Whetham has lost two family members to suicide and has struggled with several attempts through the years; she knows some of her colleagues have too, but nobody talks about it. “They’re older, and that’s how they were raised,” Whetham says. “You don’t talk about this stuff.”

Throughout the course of this project, residents kept telling me that it was easier to share their stories with a stranger than with members of their own community. I spoke with people of different ages and walks of life—from parents to police officers, teenage students to health care providers and county clerks—and despite every demographic being touched by suicide, most people hadn’t discussed it in a while. I was the one who kept having to end the conversation, as if they felt it might be a long time before they got the opportunity to talk about it again.

But there are signs of healing, too. Ron had always been private about his suicide attempt. But in December 2021, nearly two years after his life-altering crisis, he felt something inside him shift. He was ready to talk. He visited his neighbor Craig Lang, an EMT, to thank him for finding him, praying for him, and saving him that day. Ron also tried tracking down the deputy sheriff who was present, but Lang told him that the man had retired shortly after the incident because he kept having nightmares; he later moved out of the county.

Hilda Kellar, 73, is the mayor of Reserve and owner of K&B Timberworks, one of the region’s few remaining industrial employers. She has lost two family members to suicide, including her father, who struggled with chronic pain after an incident with falling timber. Her own struggles with physical pain gave her empathy. “My dad was ready to go, and I don't judge him for it because I know how I have felt with that pain,” she says. "A few years back, I got back surgery … I was hurting so bad that I used to pray for God to take me. I also understand that you can survive it. So I know not to give up.” (Brandon Kapelow)
Hilda Kellar, 73, is the mayor of Reserve and owner of K&B Timberworks, one of the region’s few remaining industrial employers. She has lost two family members to suicide, including her father, who struggled with chronic pain after an incident with falling timber. Her own struggles with physical pain gave her empathy. “My dad was ready to go, and I don't judge him for it because I know how I have felt with that pain,” she says. "A few years back, I got back surgery … I was hurting so bad that I used to pray for God to take me. I also understand that you can survive it. So I know not to give up.”
Brandon Kapelow
Vicki Shriver, 64, the Reserve district EMS medical chief, and her husband Mike Shriver, 70, a pastor and retired state policeman, have both witnessed the shortcomings in their community’s response to mental health crises. “The public still needs people to be able to respond and be a neighbor,” Vicki says. “We take steps to care for ourselves to survive, honestly, because services have disintegrated.”
Brandon Kapelow
Firearms on display at a local gun show. In 1994, the Catron county commission voted unanimously to pass a nonbinding resolution stating that every household should possess a firearm and ammunition for the purpose of home defense. In 2019, the county joined a national movement of so-called “Second Amendment Sanctuaries,” where county commissioners and sheriff’s departments agree not to enforce gun-safety laws.
Brandon Kapelow
Reflections off Quemado Lake, near 19-year-old Hunter Gossett’s childhood home. “I was raised not to show emotion. If I cried, I was called a little bitch,” he says. “But luckily, I’ve learned that it’s OK to express emotion and not be OK sometimes. Try to always be OK, and you’re going to crumble.” (Brandon Kapelow)
Reflections off Quemado Lake, near 19-year-old Hunter Gossett’s childhood home. “I was raised not to show emotion. If I cried, I was called a little bitch,” he says. “But luckily, I’ve learned that it’s OK to express emotion and not be OK sometimes. Try to always be OK, and you’re going to crumble.”
Brandon Kapelow
The road to Sunflower Mesa, where a local teen attempted suicide in 2002. Some attempt survivors, like Amy Whetham, supervisor of the Glenwood Senior Center, experience a change in perspective. “I started being more open about being bipolar, which seemed to help a lot,” she says. “Growing up, I didn’t want to talk to anybody. But it’s part of who I am. There’s nothing to be ashamed about. I know that I do want to live. I’m not ready to go anywhere yet.” (Brandon Kapelow)
The road to Sunflower Mesa, where a local teen attempted suicide in 2002. Some attempt survivors, like Amy Whetham, supervisor of the Glenwood Senior Center, experience a change in perspective. “I started being more open about being bipolar, which seemed to help a lot,” she says. “Growing up, I didn’t want to talk to anybody. But it’s part of who I am. There’s nothing to be ashamed about. I know that I do want to live. I’m not ready to go anywhere yet.”
Brandon Kapelow

Ron now spends his days working the ranch with his wife and children, wondering why he was spared. He says that despite lingering feelings of regret, he ends each day filled with gratitude for being alive, for getting to enjoy more moments with his grandkids. “It would have fragmented my family, so maybe that’s why God let me live,” he says. He leans back into the seat of his truck and looks out toward the rolling cattle pastures. “Maybe just me talking to you is some of what it is. Maybe somehow I have kept somebody else from doing this. Maybe that’s what this is all about.”

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental-health crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental-health provider.

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