Montana’s hidden epidemic Suicide is too common but what do we do now?


(Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series reported by our summer intern, Alanis Stallknecht, a Bigfork High School graduate and senior at the University of Montana Western in Dillon. This is a rare attempt at journalism and we hope readers understand and embrace her hard work.)

In light of the teen suicide crisis in Montana, understanding the issues concerning suicide and mental health is an important way to take part in suicide prevention, help others in crisis, and change the conversation about suicide, according to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Ryan Wetzel, the Suicide Prevention Coordinator in Ravalli County, said the amount of suicides committed in the Flathead Valley, and other places, could be reduced with the proper resources.

“Prior to 2000, there was no statewide or strategic efforts to link resources to build a stronger network to address suicide,” said Roxana Colman-Herak in her article, The Ambivalence of Suicide.

Colman-Herak, former manager of an anti-suicide program in Lake County, said that during a teenager’s development in their middle school or high school career, students are trying to understand where they fit in and for many, it can be overwhelming.

“There are underlying reasons behind a suicide, such as abusive relationships or alcohol use, which can make suicide attempts more spontaneous,” she said. She also said bullying is a common issue on campuses.

There are many “solutions” to teen suicide. Some options include counseling, medication and the 1-800-suicide prevention hotline (1-800-273-8255).

However, these solutions are not enough, said Colman-Herak, who describes the depression which consumes a person’s mind as an onion.

“Peel the onion back and there is always something deeper.” She said that everyone is facing their own battle whether they admit it or not.

Pharmaceutical pills don’t always help and in many cases, can make depression worse, she said. Also, the 1-800-suicide hotline is only a quick response to suicide. She believes treating depression shouldn’t be quick but mental health professionals should take the time to find out what the cause of the disease is.

An annual Bigfork School District Survey asks: Do they have a trusted adult they can talk to at school? Do they have someone who cares about them at home? These are questions that could, “peel back the onion,” Colman-Herak said.

Bigfork Middle School counselor, Jen Wood, defines several signs that students and teachers should keep an eye out for. “Things we notice are the withdrawal from crowds, missing school, tardiness, lack of participation in just about anything, and a lack of energy or happiness,” she said. Bigfork faculty teaches students that it is their responsibility to report if they believe someone is struggling with suicidal thoughts, but that it is not their burden to carry alone.

“Creating meaningful relationships should be the biggest part of all of our jobs (counselors, teachers, coaches),” Wood said. She also stressed that mentors at schools have a huge impact on students. Teenagers need to know that there are people willing to listen and who want to help them, Wood said.

There are several programs that can be implemented at schools for free. A suicide prevention program, Signs of Suicides, is a nationally recognized, easily implemented, cost-effective program of suicide prevention for secondary school students. According to a study on SOS, there was a 40 percent reduction in suicide attempts because of the program. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services will purchase the SOS Program for all Montana secondary schools willing to implement it.

Bigfork’s School District uses a program named LOOK, LISTEN, LINK developed by Susan Eastgard and Lisa Watson, who are both from the Youth Suicide Prevention Program of Washington State. Joan Schmidt introduced LOOK, LISTEN, LINK to Bigfork and is the program coordinator of the Flathead Suicide Prevention Coalition. According to Wetzel, to stabilize the increase of teen suicides, Montanans need to educate themselves.

“Then, we’ll be able to see the warning signs and act effectively,” he said.

Prevention key to reducing suicides

From The Nate Chute Foundation At its core, suicide prevention focuses on reducing factors that increase suicide risk while increasing the factors that protect people from attempting or completing suicide.

Since 1999, the Nate Chute Foundation, a 501(c)3 based out of Whitefish and dedicated to suicide prevention among young people in western Montana, has placed a strong focus on the risk factor piece of the prevention equation.

The NCF has provided evidenced based trainings to school professionals, law enforcement, clergy, community members and student bodies across Flathead County and into Lincoln, Sanders, and Lake Counties.

While it’s impossible to know if it’s efforts have helped contribute to a solution in a state that continues to rank among the top in the nation for deaths by suicide, the NCF strongly believes that their focused efforts have helped families and individuals to recognize the warning signs of suicide and know where to turn in a crisis.

As the NCF grows from a kitchen-table organization to a legitimate community non-profit, organizers hopes to put more of an emphasis on protective factors.

“I think we’ve done a great job of helping people to understand the signs of suicidal behavior, but I would like to see us doing more to build up our young people. To teach them about getting to know themselves. What makes them tick. What make them feel good. Or bad,” Howard said. “Developing an understanding of self and practicing good self-care creates more resilient individuals. In Montana, we pride ourselves on our self-reliance. It’s that old ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality that can be a blessing and a curse. For if we aren’t teaching our young people how to care for themselves, what tools they have to fight against depression, or teenage angst, or substance abuse, or the many other factors that increase risk of suicide, then how can we expect them to proverbially pull themselves up?”

To learn more visit natechutefoundation.org.

#Suicide #Teensuicide #AlanisStallnecht

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