HELENA — A standing-room-only crowd of more than 250 people from across Montana turned out for the 2014 Montana Conference on Suicide Prevention.
The conference was such a hot ticket that organizers had to turn away people due to the limited size of the room.
Attendees included psychiatrists and other physicians, psychologists, therapists, nurses, physician assistants, advocates and everyday Montanans interested in preventing suicide. And, they all are eager to discover ways to reduce a runaway suicide rate that has plagued the state for nearly 40 years.
The timing of the conference coincided with the release this week of nationwide suicide statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Based on 2011 statistics, the most current numbers available, Montana — along with Wyoming — was ranked No. 1, recording 232 suicides in 2011. The rate is twice the national rate.
So far this year, there have been at least 95 confirmed suicides in Montana.
In 2011, more than 39,000 people nationally killed themselves, making it the 11th leading cause of death for all ages. It is equivalent to one death by suicide every 16 minutes, according to the CDC.
“We don’t have this problem licked,” said Barbara Stanley, one of the nation’s leading suicide prevention experts, the keynote speaker.
Her message was titled, “Evidence-based Interventions for Reducing Suicide Risk.” She urged attendees to be aggressive in getting money for research and advocacy.
She used as an example the AIDS community, which “demanded” money for research, and if you look at AIDS today, it has been reduced drastically.”
She led a session Friday on training clinicians on how to develop safety plans.
Karl Rosston, the state’s suicide prevention coordinator, also led a session on suicide prevention called,” Question, Persuade, Refer.”
Brylee Zumpf, 21, is completing an internship at the Women’s Resource Center in Dillon. She is originally from Miles City where suicide has had a particularly strong hold. She has seen the devastation of suicide and wants to organize an awareness walk in Dillon. She has had friends and neighbors kill themselves.
“I feel we need to be more educated,” she said.
Pam McFarland is a mental health counselor in Valier, population 325. She attended the conference hoping to find new tools to combat suicide and make sure she has the latest information.
A group of Valier High School students recently went to Helena for a church event and while there, the boyfriend of one the attendees, from Butte, killed himself. That event unnerved many youth in Valier, she said.
“It rocks kids’ world,” she said. “It’s such a copycat thing that you fear for them. If you can help one person be unsuccessful and live through it, that’s a blessing.”
She is also dealing with suicide on a more personal level. On May 5, her ex-husband committed suicide.
“My kids and grandkids are trying to understand why he would do that,” she said. “They are turning to me.”
Jim Wemple, 71, a private practitioner in Missoula, said he came to the conference eager to learn about this issue that has the state in a death grip.
“Suicide is more popular today than ever,” Wemple said. “It’s harder to find answers about life and so many people see suicide as the only option.”