In August, Louisiana’s wildfires scorched over 60,000 acres, eight times the past decade’s annual average. Wildfire smoke plumes can travel up to thousands of miles from their source: earlier this summer, smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted as far down as the Bayou State. 

While previous studies have shown a correlation between wildfire smoke and suicide risk, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that between 2007 and 2019, a 10% increase in airborne particulate matter from wildfire leads to an increase in American average monthly rural suicide rates by 1.5%, even when controlling for other factors such as holidays, and economic activity. These effects were concentrated among working-age white men without college degrees but absent in any urban demographic group 

Those findings could mean that Louisianians are at higher risk than residents of many other states, particularly if the state experiences increased numbers of wildfires in the future due to the effects of climate change.

“Air pollution itself is highly associated with depression,” said Della Wright, a public health expert with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, a New Orleans-based nonprofit. “So it would suggest that not only are we experiencing these things that are hurting our mental health, [but] it’s also the toxic conditions that we’re in that would be changing the way that our brains respond to input.”

Louisiana ranks 46th among states in residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher. About 37 out of Louisiana’s 64 parishes are considered rural,  and  29% of Louisianians  live in rural areas, above the U.S. and southern averages. The study also confirmed that rural Red River Valley and Western Acadiana — where the largest wildfire in state history occurred in August — were two of the most smoke-exposed areas across the Deep South.

David Molitor, a health economist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who co-authored the paper, pointed to mental health resources access, stigmas around seeking such help, and time spent outdoors as possible clues to the significant — and widening — gap between rural and urban suicide rates.

While personally surprised that wildfire smoke had no observable effect on urban suicides, Dr. Molitor cautioned that more research is needed to understand why this was so, and that mental health outcomes such as depression are not captured by a single statistic. 

“The first step here is to identify who those groups are,” he said. “Before you can treat an illness, you have to diagnose it first, once you diagnose it, then you can start to think about which treatments are effective.”

As America musters the will to confront the climate and mental health crises, Molitor suggested that systemic-level policy shifts could, for now, make vulnerable communities more robust. 

“Public health guidance mostly focuses on things to protect physical health. And I think what is worth considering is … how to give out appropriate public health guidance in a way that encourages people to take care of their mental health as well.”

If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, call the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. You can also text “START” to 741741, the Crisis Text Line, to connect with a trained crisis counselor. If you suspect someone of needing immediate help, call 911.

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Born and raised in Hong Kong, Alex is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Xylom, a Gen-Z-led newsroom exploring the communities influencing and shaped by science. He also recently led a team to translate...