America’s top 10 unhappiest cities (© Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Portland, Ore. ranks No. 1 on BusinessWeek.com's list of America's unhappiest places. © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Leslie Storm, director of an Oregon suicide help line, is scrambling to find shelter for a cash-strapped 52-year-old man who says he will hang himself by the end of the week.

The man, who could not work for a couple of months because of a medical condition, told Storm that he is behind on his rent and his roommate planned to kick him out this week. It is the kind of situation she is dealing with more in these days of rising unemployment and evictions.

"He's telling me that he is slipping through the cracks, and it breaks my heart," says Storm, director of the crisis line program of the Oregon Partnership. "He has medical problems and says he can't go live under a bridge."

The Oregon suicide and drug and alcohol help lines received 71% more calls in January 2009 than it did the previous January, including more calls from people having suicidal thoughts because of severe financial stress, Storm said.

Promoting awareness
The federal government and nonprofit advocacy groups are getting the word out about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK) and focusing more on other prevention efforts because they are worried that the rising tide of unemployment and foreclosures could lead to more depression, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce and ultimately for the most vulnerable, suicide.

Slide show:  America's top 10 unhappiest cities

At the same time, the recession has forced state governments to cut back on social services designed to help people in physical, mental and financial stress at exactly the time when demand for those services is greatest, says Susan Byrne Lee, president and chief executive officer of Mental Health America of Northeast Florida.

The nationwide data on suicide lags by three or four years, so it likely won't be known whether suicides are spiking for a few years, by which point everyone hopes the recession will be over. But even before the crisis, suicide rates were higher in certain parts of the country — especially in the Intermountain West, including Montana, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon — and lowest in densely populated states such as New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey. It is unclear why this is the case, but researchers believe that people in more rural states might have less access to care, tend to be more isolated and have ready access to guns.

To get a sense of where the pain points are greatest, BusinessWeek.com came up with a list of the 20 unhappiest cities. These are major cities that were ranked based on their rates of suicide, depression, divorce, unemployment, job loss, population loss, crime, amount of green space and cloudy days. BusinessWeek.com gave most emphasis to suicide and depression rates, crime and economic factors. The city with the highest overall score in our index was Portland, the beautiful Oregon city that also has very high depression and suicide rates. St. Louis, New Orleans and Detroit were high on the list, largely because of their rates of crime, unemployment and population loss. Other cities such as Las Vegas and Jacksonville, Fla., ranked high because of their suicide rates and difficult economic conditions.

In Las Vegas, a suicide increase
Mike Murphy, coroner for Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas, said he has noticed an increase in economy-related suicides, but he doesn't have any hard data yet.

What's your home worth?

He is seeing more suicides involving elderly people, including two recent husband-and-wife suicide pacts. The increase in suicide among seniors could be because of economic conditions. But it could also be because Las Vegas has become a destination for retirees, he said.

He said it is a misconception that Vegas suicides are tied to gambling (though it's impossible to know the precise causes). Murphy said people who take their own lives might have had problems long before they moved to Las Vegas.

"A lot of people will come to communities such as ours to make a new start in life," Murphy said. "But if they bring habits from where they came from, nothing will change except geography."