We cannot ignore Montana’s suicide crisis

With its towering mountains and vast open spaces, Montana is unequivocally one of the nation’s most beautiful states. But amidst this grandeur, Montana grapples with one of the nation’s ugliest statistics. At a rate of 23.4 deaths per 100,000 people, Montana has the highest suicide rate in the nation, along with Wyoming. This is almost twice the national average.

More specifically, there are 15 documented suicide attempts every day in Montana, which comes out to about 5,500 per year. In a state of approximately one million people, this means that each year one out of every 182 people attempts suicide. Meanwhile, the Billings Gazette reports that Montana mental health service providers are struggling to meet the demand for their services; at least nine times this year, the 208-bed Montana State Hospital has been forced to stop accepting emergency detention patients (patients that are considered a danger to themselves).

According to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, a number of factors contribute to our state’s alarming rate of suicides. Some of these are immediately obvious. For example, Montana is number two nationwide in rates of firearm ownership, with the result being that 65 percent — compared to a U.S. average of 50 percent — of suicides are carried out with firearms. Social isolation is also a critical factor — there are 6.7 people per square mile in Montana, and this lack of established rural communities or nearby friends and family can allow one’s suicidal tendencies to go unchecked.

Quite possibly the most important factor, however, is the persistent stigma associated with mental illness. In Montana’s hyper-macho culture of individualism, seeking treatment for feelings of sadness or depression is often perceived as a sign of weakness. Growing up in this state, I was frequently told to “man up” and deal with problems on my own — even as I went through periods of depression in high school. High school counselors seemed unequipped to deal with someone who could be clinically depressed and usually attributed my sadness to problems in my social life. “Kids will be kids” was essentially their message, and I was told to do nothing more than grin and bear it.

Fortunately, MSU has a much better infrastructure for attempting to reduce campus suicides and cases of depression, with a Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) office that offers confidential counseling free of charge. And, as the Exponent reported last week, CPS will be able to expand the breadth of their services after MSU received a $248,000 grant to broaden suicide prevention and awareness programs.

State officials are also taking actions to combat Montana’s suicide problem. Gov. Steve Bullock is proposing a $12 million initiative as part of his executive budget to provide Montanans with services to ensure they have access to the treatment they need. This will include investing in community mental health centers and crisis diversion services, which are essential components of suicide prevention in small Montana communities.

“Nearly every Montanan has felt the impacts of a loved one ending their life,” Bullock said to the Billings Gazette. “Our state’s suicide rate is too high to be ignored.”

Bullock is absolutely on the right track, but money will only go so far in addressing this complex issue. While we can never have enough services for those contemplating suicide, a long-term reduction in suicide rates will require a systematic shift in attitudes toward and perceptions of mental illness. Montanans should feel no more ashamed of seeking treatment for anxiety disorders or depression than they would in seeking treatment for the common flu.

Such a shift will require more people to “come out” as sufferers of anxiety and depression. There are many of us — for example, the 2011 National College Health Assessment found that 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some point in the previous year. With such high rates, if respected campus leaders were to open up about struggles with mental illness, it would go a long way toward mitigating the absurd stigma that remains stubbornly persistent at MSU and across the state of Montana.

The suicide rate in Montana is indeed alarming. However, if public officials and leaders are willing to face the ugly reality — using words to address the stigma of mental illness, and perhaps courageously “coming out” as sufferers of mental illness themselves — Montana could be recognized as a national suicide-prevention success story. Then what an even more beautiful state we could become.