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Claire Oakley

Claire Oakley

In Montana, suicides are a public health crisis. They occur at twice the national rate, with 25 suicides for every 100,000 people in the state. Montana ranked third in suicides in 2017, down from our Number One ranking in 2016 only because Alaska and Wyoming tragically increased their suicide rates.

According to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey:

• More than 9 percent of Montana high school students attempted suicide one or more times in the previous 12 months.

• 31 percent of Montana high school students felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or longer.

• Nearly 21 percent of high school students seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention published these alarming figures for Montana in 2017:

• One person dies by suicide every 32 hours in Montana.

• The total lifetime financial cost, including work lost, amounts to more than $1.1 million for each death.

• More people die by suicide than homicide.

• Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10 to 44; fourth leading cause for ages 45-54; and seventh for ages 55-64.

As a state, and as individual communities, we must work collectively to respond to this public health crisis. So what is being done locally to try to halt these tragic deaths?

The Suicide Prevention Coalition of Yellowstone Valley (SPCYV) has embraced a campaign by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). This jointly sponsored campaign encourages voluntary secure firearm storage. We began our work in this area by inviting firearm retailers and pawnshops to help us frame the issue. More than 60 percent of Montana suicides are completed using firearms.

Two local firearms retailers are distributing Firearms and Suicide Prevention brochures published jointly by NSSF and ASFP. We have also developed a 10 to 15 minute presentation for use by service groups. Members of the area Suicide Prevention Coalition welcome opportunities to speak to organizations, handout brochures, and answer questions.

The local Coalition also offers Question, Persuade, Refer, better known as QPR, akin to the heart saving technique of CPR. This one-hour training teaches about the myths of suicide and how to intervene to help save the life of a family member, friend or neighbor. Contrary to the belief that mentioning suicide will cause suicide, asking a person about their intentions actually reduces their risk of dying by suicide.

Teams from Billings and Helena, along with groups from six much larger cities across the United States, will meet with policymakers in Washington, D.C., to plan local approaches to reduce the rate of suicide among veterans, service members, and their families. Called the “Mayor’s Challenge,” these strategy sessions are sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. With the support of Mayor Bill Cole, in Billings, and Mayor Wilmot Collins, in Helena, local teams will work on reducing suicides related to military service. Stay tuned for the resulting action plans to curb this human loss.

Claire R. Oakley, Ph.D, MHA, Director of Population Health Services, can be reached at 651.6462 or