For more than three decades, suicide has ravaged Montana at a rate that leads the nation.
Many of the victims are young, making suicide the second-leading cause of death for those between ages 10 and 24.
To combat the epidemic, the framework was created Monday for an innovative, youth-suicide prevention project in Billings. To address the region’s “cowboy up” culture, in which residents avoid addressing or dealing with mental health issues, the campaign is branded, “Let’s Talk Billings.” The name is designed to get people talking about suicide and depression.
The goal is to heighten community awareness of depression and suicide among teens, and to provide tools and resources to teens, their friends, families and caregivers.
Current partners in the campaign are Global Health Equity Foundation and Montana State University Billings. The Miles City-based GHEF is a nonprofit organization founded in 2007 that addresses challenges faced by health and mental health care providers in rural areas. The foundation serves as a catalyst for community awareness, communication and involvement.
Billings Clinic, RiverStone Health and the Billings chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness each had representatives eager to sit on an advisory council.
GHEF, in partnership with MSU Billings last year, created a similar innovative suicide prevention program for teens.
Dr. Tayeb Al-Hafez, founding director of GHEF, said it was a successful model in Miles City and he now wants to replicate it on a larger scale. One feature of the project is that it allows young people to express themselves in a contemporary way.
“In a cowboy-up environment, kids are not allowed to express themselves,” Al-Hafez said. “They’re not allowed to complain about being blue or working on the ranch.”
The unique combination of performing arts, social media and community-based mental health services has helped reach young people and is gaining momentum. The peer-to-peer aspect of the play, combined with the Q&A, moderated by a high school counselor, has been a breakthrough in helping youth talk about depression and suicide, and learning the importance of reaching out and getting help, said Sarah Keller, chair of the Department of Communication and Theater at MSU Billings.
A core element of the Miles City campaign was creation of a website specifically for teens, with information about depression and suicide, and access to help at the local, regional and national levels. The website, www.LetsTalkMilesCity.com, provides support and mental health tools and resources to teens, their families, healthcare providers and the community as a whole. A Facebook page serves as a companion to the website, an online gathering place for young people to discuss their feelings and help each other. Local counselors and members of the Local Advisory Council are “friends” on the page to provide advice as needed.
The Billings project will mirror the Miles City effort in many respects. It will include: reaching out to select high schools and working with administrators, staff and counselors; identifying and engaging a theater director; getting teens involved in the theater workshops; researching local mental health resources; designing and creating the Billings website; staging the play in high schools throughout Billings; and reaching out to Native American youth, a group with an extremely high rate of suicide, to ensure that demographic is served.