Montana’s struggle with highest suicide rate in nation
Montana's suicide rate hovered in the top five nationally for decades and in the past few years it has gone up.
During 2010, at least 227 Montanans killed themselves. In 2011, the number was closer to 225. That’s about 22 people per 100,000 residents, nearly twice the national average.
The victims are military veterans, American Indians, senior citizens and teenagers. Often, they are depressed and hundreds of miles from the nearest mental health professional. Even where they can get help, they tend to "cowboy up," afraid their illness will be seen as weakness.
In the past five years, the state's suicide rate has crept from 20.1 per 100,000 people to 22.5. Nationally five years ago, the rate was 10 people per 100,000. Today, it's closer to 12 people per 100,000.
The highest rate of suicide in the state is among American Indians, 27.2 per 100,000; followed by Caucasians at 22.2 per 100,000. For 2010-2011, there were 38 American Indian suicides, compared to 410 Caucasian suicides. American Indians make up seven percent of the Montana population.
"Montana's suicide epidemic is a public health crisis,” said Matt Kuntz, executive director of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
But until recently, there has been little public conversation about it and little public awareness.
All of that changed on Sunday, Nov. 25 when Editor Steve Prosinski devoted an entire front page to the issue with two full, color inside pages, followed by front-page articles on Monday and Tuesday. Since then, the Gazette has kept the issue in front of the public with separate installments on the suicide rate among teens and veterans. The issue has dominated the front pages and our mid-week Health cover. The entire series is packaged in a special section, which can be found on the Gazette’s home page, www.billingsgazette.com. You can read the series by clicking on a link to the project, “State of Despair” on the homepage.
The Billings Gazette is the state’s largest newspaper, read by most policymakers. Our goal is to create and shape a statewide conversation about our epidemic.
We began crisscrossing the state the first week of October, meeting with mental health experts, suicide prevention coordinators, families of suicide victims, suicide survivors and state health leaders.
Our series was the topic of conversation at a recent legislative forum, as lawmakers began preparing the legislative agenda for the upcoming session.
Suicide is not an easy subject to discuss. Two months after we began we are frequently told, as one Billingswoman wrote, “Thank you so much for the research, covering all of Montanaand recording the personal and societal effects of this devastating reality. You may not be totally aware that covering this topic means a great deal to us- families, suicidal folks and their communities- giving us more acceptance and understanding of an unappreciated but horrifying reality of the pain of overwhelming depression/anxiety.”
We – photographers Jim Woodcock and Casey Page and videographer Lloyd Blunk -- have profiled families who have lost loved ones to suicide and those who attempted suicide and failed. A huge part of the success of the project has been putting faces to this issue, using their real names and photos. We did not allow anyone to be anonymous. Everyone was videotaped and digitally recorded so we could use a combination of audio and video on our website.
Some of those we profiled were:
- a grieving mother whose 33-year-old son just six months ago used a high-powered rifle to shoot his 3-year-old son in the head then turned the gun on himself.
- an Iraqi veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury who tied a parachute chord around his neck.
- a 22-year-old who was 16 when he parked his car near his favorite fishing hole and put a gun to his head. The young man is now in a wheelchair and has lost function in both his arms and legs.
- a widow whose husband wrote a note, went for a walk and shot himself.
- a mental health executive who tied a rope around his neck hoping to die.
These courageous people have made it possible to talk about this issue openly and candidly.
We have digitally recorded every single interview that we have done over the past three months. The recordings have proven invaluable as these survivors recount their experiences. The stories are told in their own words.
The feedback we have received – and continue to receive – has been phenomenal. The CEO of Yellowstone County’s public health agency asked last week if more installments would be forthcoming. He was hoping there would be.
My editor, Chris Jorgensen, said a woman at his church told him she thought The Gazette “sure was brave” for tackling such a sensitive topic. Her 16-year-old killed himself while they were living abroad 10 years ago.
One of our employees approached me to thank us for taking on this subject. The employee’s father committed suicide several years ago and this employee said not many know. The employee had never felt comfortable talking about it – until now.
We’ve posted our videos on YouTube and are now discussing the publication of an E-book.
The Montana Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness has posted the entire series on its homepage. It has posted each installment on its Facebook page and sends an email blast after each installment is published.
The Global Health Equity Fund, which has helped fund a theater production aimed at getting people to talk about depression and suicidal thoughts, has also posted our work on its website.
After learning that there is a waiting list for suicidal children to receive mental health services, our publisher, Michael Gulledge, has donated money to Youth Dynamics, aMontananon-profit serving youth, ages 0-18 with behavioral health issues.
A lobbyist is working with the Montana Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness to begin lobbying the state Legislature for a psychiatric residency program in the state.
My editors clearly and immediately saw the value in this effort and gave me the precious gift of time to work on it. In addition to their experience and expertise, I had a great mentor in Kate Long.
Two of the most valuable pieces of advice she gave me were:
- Record and transcribe the interviews if you can. They will be invaluable.
- Look for ways to extend your project’s reach.
I would be happy to talk with any reporter or editor about our project. Feel free to contact me, Cindy Uken, at email@example.com or (406) 657-1287.