The statistics are heartbreaking: Montana has the highest suicide rate in the United States, and has been in the top five for nearly 40 years. The state Department of Public Health and Human Services says 250 Montanans complete suicide each year.
The state saw 25.9 suicides for every 100,000 residents in 2016, nearly double the national average, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 1999, that rate increased 38 percent, faster than the 30 percent national increase in suicides. In 2014, Missoula County had the highest rate on record (33.8 per 100,000), close to three times the national average.
Health officials attribute Montana’s high suicide rate to a complexity of factors, including high rates of alcohol consumption, a strong gun culture, a lack of daylight in the winter and high elevation (which are both linked to depression) and the stigma of reaching out for help, which some people see as a weakness.
But there’s help and hope.
“What’s important to know is yes, Montana has the highest suicide rate in the nation,” said Nancy de Pastino, suicide prevention coordinator for the Missoula City-County Health Department. “But we’re really making progress.”
Suicides are gradually declining in Missoula, she said, from 34 in 2016 to 28 in 2018. Calls to the suicide hotlines are up.
“We’re encouraged by the number of people reaching out,” de Pastino said. “People know where to go to get help and use that system. There are holes in the safety net, but we’re making a community-wide effort to take care of the people in crisis.”
As part of that effort, and to boost understanding and awareness, Project Tomorrow Montana has organized a variety of events for National Suicide Prevention Week, Sept. 6-14.
Originally known as the Western Montana Suicide Prevention Initiative, Project Tomorrow was founded in 2014 by the Missoula City-County Health Department, United Way of Missoula County, the University of Montana’s Institute for Educational Research and Living Works Education.
The initiative was established to reduce the number of suicides and suicide attempts in western Montana through collaborative efforts that promote, support and increase awareness, prevention, intervention and recovery.
Through free workshops and training – available for individuals, groups and private and public entities such as businesses, schools and churches – Project Tomorrow has educated hundreds of health care professionals, school counselors and community members on how to identify suicide warning signs and use safe intervention strategies.
Project Tomorrow also provides free, online mental health screening (for educational, not diagnostic purposes), and free gun locks upon request.
“In 2018, 75 percent of suicides in Missoula were completed with guns,” de Pestino said. “That’s compared to an average of 50 percent nationwide. I’ve seen that trend continue to rise. Suicide is an impulsive act, and if lethal means are easily available to those in crisis the likelihood is higher that they may go through with it. We can help by ensuring that those in crisis who have guns keep them safely stored, or have someone hold onto and store the guns for them.”
Events during Suicide Prevention Week are free and include:
Grief Gathering Workshops: Last Thursday, a Grief Gathering Fall Lunch Workshop Series was launched at the Tamarack Grief Resource Center, 405 South First Street West, Missoula.
Every Brilliant Thing: On Friday and Saturday nights, Sept. 7-8, the Missoula Children’s Theater performed a play called “Every Brilliant Thing,” starring Rosie Seitz Ayers, dealing with the topics of depression, suicide and hope, with a primary focus on all the beautiful and delightful things in the world worth living for.
SMART Presentation: A one-hour training geared toward adults to help keep kids safe from guns. It includes suicide prevention, unintentional shootings and school shootings. The presentation will be held Monday, Sept. 9, from 5-6 p.m. at the Community Medical Center, Gallagher Boardroom, 2827 Fort Missoula Road, Missoula.
QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) Gatekeeper Training: This training is designed to help everyday individuals recognize the warning signs of suicide and learn to persuade and refer those in crisis to appropriate help. The training will be held Tuesday, Sept. 10, 5:30 p.m., at the Missoula Food Bank Community Room, 1720 Wyoming Street, and again on Wednesday, Sept. 11, at 7 p.m. in the University Center, Room 4113, on the University of Montana campus in Missoula.
Dancing Toward the Light: A documentary by Canadian journalists Kitra Cahana and Ed Ou, focusing on the town of Arviat, in Nunavut, on the shores of the Hudson Bay, where dancing has become a positive force of hope and healing in a community with high suicide rates. Sponsored by the Missoula Urban Indian Health Center, the film begins at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 10, at the Roxy Theater, 718 South Higgins Street in Missoula.
Out of the Darkness Walk: In the past, more than 500 people have joined this annual Missoula walk – one of hundreds held throughout the nation, organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – to raise hope, awareness and funds to support suicide prevention, awareness, education and advocacy. The event begins at 12:30 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 14, at Silver Park, 700 Cregg Lane, in Missoula. Participants can register themselves and teams here: https://afsp.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.event&eventID=5979
For more information about Project Tomorrow Missoula, suicide warning signs, suicide prevention, training and other resources, click here: http://projecttomorrowmt.org/
Those wanting confidential help and support can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text “MT” to 741-741.