Montana has the highest number of suicides per capita in the U.S., with approximately 24 out of every 100,000 residents committing suicide, nearly twice the national average. Last semester, 22 attempted suicides were reported at MSU. And while these numbers are disturbing, statistics alone do not do justice to the epidemic.
Katelyn grew up in the Gallatin Valley and, like many Montanans, lost friends to suicide before the age of 20. She suffered from severe depression for many months before seeking help. When she was 18, her therapist asked her if she ever had suicidal thoughts. Her response was, “F— no. I think suicide is the most selfish thing anyone could do.” She later added that, “This was a somewhat naïve thing to say; however, it could be justified as a reaction to the loss of a close friend to suicide.”
According to Matt Caires, the first thing President Waded Cruzado asked him to address as dean of students was the issue of suicide in the community. “I want to create a culture of care,” Caires said. The most recent effort was a statewide Suicide Prevention Summit, organized by the Montana University System and hosted at MSU. The goal of the summit was to provide an opportunity for the community to organize and discuss how to best address suicide in the state.
Statistics presented at the summit included the fact that at some point in their school careers, one in three students develop depression that impairs their function and 7.5 percent say they have serious thoughts of suicide.
Katelyn lost her friend Luke in a climbing accident, and while, “Luke didn’t commit suicide, a year and a half later, his best friend Cody did.” She and had Cody had become close in the time after Luke’s death because of their mutual loss. “Again, as with losing Luke, I’ll never forget the moment I found out.” Katelyn’s best friend called and warned her that she had seen posts on Facebook that made her think Cody had passed.
The stressful and sometimes unhealthy mental environments in college correlate with a rise in suicide. According to data provided by the Montana Office of Vital Statistics, it can be seen that suicide rates of individuals between the ages of 15-24 are up to 57 percent higher in counties with college towns like Bozeman or Missoula. The Montana Office of Vital Statistics does not publish suicide rates in counties that had less than five in a year for sake of confidentiality. This makes it impossible to compare statistics of smaller counties, so only statistics of suicide rates in Yellowstone, Gallatin, Flathead, Cascade and Missoula counties were used in these calculations.
Across the state, one fifth of deaths for individuals aged between 15 and 44 were due to suicide. These deaths are not exclusive to students. Many are in relation to veterans, alcoholism, poverty and even the weather. Suicide death rates among young adults and teens in Roosevelt County, where the Sioux Reservation is housed, are a staggering 4.412 for every 10,000 residents, which is three times as high as the next comparable college town.
Caires said his first major action as dean of students was creating the role of associate dean of students and appointing Aaron Grusonik, a former counselor, to fill the role. Both Caires and Grusonik emphasized that this role was created expressly with the purpose of combatting the issue of suicide on campus.
Katelyn felt that “The difference between losing Luke and losing Cody was the anger that was present over the loss of Cody. I truly loved Cody, and felt that therefore he belonged in part to me. It seemed to me that it wasn’t his decision to take himself away from us, and for that I was livid.”
One of Grusonik’s most crucial and successful efforts has been building a bridge between MSU and the Hope House in Bozeman. The Hope House is a progressive rehabilitation center for people who feel or have felt they might attempt suicide. Now, when students admit themselves there, Hope House can ask the students’ permission and release their information to Grusonik’s office. Grusonik makes it a point to personally visit students at Hope House, and figures out on a case-by-case basis how MSU can best help each student.
Since the connection between MSU and Hope House is relatively new, MSU has only been able to track statistics on attempted suicides with students there for a relatively short period of time. This makes it nearly impossible to cross-reference statistics to see how much the issue is improving, because as of now it is only clear that the ability to gather these statistics is improving.
“I just lost another friend to suicide in February. The most terrifying thing I’ve noticed about my grieving process this time around is how much easier it is. It’s as if I lost a piece of my innocence that no one should ever lose.” Katelyn knows her pain is not as great as that of the victims’ families or other close friends, but adds that, “It should not be normal that I’ve buried two friends who killed themselves before my twentieth birthday, but unfortunately it is.”
It is an unfortunate fact that most people have lost someone they knew to suicide, and Montanans know this more than most due to Montana’s exceptionally high suicide rate. The Hope House was built in response to Bozeman Deaconess Hospital using too many emergency room resources on attempted suicide victims, and not being properly equipped to deal with suicide in the first place. The Hope House aims to provide a comforting place for all of its residents. Grusonik pointed out that the first couple of days after leaving a rehabilitation center are the most dangerous times for suicidal persons, which is why the Hope House tries to make it a place these persons would want to come back to in a time of need.
The efforts the Bozeman and MSU community have been putting into combatting this issue are incredibly important. MSU encourages all faculty, students and staff to complete Question, Persuade, and Refer (QPR) and Kognito gatekeeper training. Both are training sessions that help participants recognize signs of mental health issues, communicate with, and refer at-risk students.
Cruzado pointed out, “experts tell us that connection with others is one of the most effective weapons to combat suicide, and that mental illness as a whole, and depression specifically, should be discussed openly beginning in elementary school.” Cruzado is right in this assertion, but this is not the only lens the issue should be addressed through — connection with others does not always prevent a person from killing themselves.
Everyone in the community must realize that suicide is, in fact, an epidemic. Current efforts are important, but the issue is much more complicated than simple cause and effect. A collective push is needed for attacking the problem from multiple fronts, because the root of the problem can be anything from systemic, to personal, to a combination of the two. While the resources available are good, suicide is not an issue where the community can — or should — say “good enough.”
Katelyn finished her thoughts on suicide pointing out that “Most of us living in Montana know at least one person who has taken their own life, and those lives lost are on all of us if we don’t start actively fighting to prevent suicide.” She continued, “I want to live in a world where we as a community have stepped up and not only identified problems like this, but done something about them. So help a friend if you suspect they are feeling depressed. Get help if you yourself are depressed. Because in the end, there’s always something to live for.”
While the MSU community has made huge strides in battling suicide, it is not the time to stop, but to keep fighting.
Counseling & Psychological Services (CPS): (406) 994-4531
Bozeman Help Center 24-hour help line: (406) 586-3333
The National Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
National Suicide Prevention text line: 741741
Faculty, students, and staff who are worried about individual students can report to the Campus Safety and Welfare Team (CSWT):
MSU encourages all faculty, students and staff to complete QPR and Kognito gatekeeper training:
- Question, Persuade, and Refer (QPR) is a one-hour training that helps participants recognize signs and symptoms, ask questions about suicide, asses risk and refer to local resources for help. (QPR can be scheduled by calling CPS or emailing Brian Kassar at email@example.com)
- Kognito is a short web-based training program that helps participants recognize signs of mental health issues, distress and suicide, as well as discussing how to communicate with and refer at-risk students. (www.kognitocampus.com/login — Access code: msuboze)
* The Montana Office of Vital Statistics does not publish suicide rates in counties that had less than five in a year for sake of confidentiality. This makes it impossible to compare statistics of smaller counties, so only statistics of suicide rates in Yellowstone, Gallatin, Flathead, Cascade and Missoula counties were used in these calculations.
** Since the connection between MSU and Hope House is relatively new, MSU has only been able to track statistics on attempted suicides with students there for a relatively short period of time. This makes it nearly impossible to cross-reference statistics to see how much the issue is improving, because as of now it is only clear that the ability to gather these statistics is improving.
*** These deaths are not exclusive to students alone. Many are in relations to veterans, alcoholism, poverty, and even the weather. Suicide death rates among young adults and teens in Roosevelt County, where the Sioux Reservation is housed, is a staggering 4.412 for every 10,000 residents, which is three times as much as the next comparable college town.