Alarmed at the hundreds of people killing themselves in Montana, a registered psychiatric nurse from Billings is on a quest to find ways to reduce the rate.
To help in his quest, Paul Tutokey, 48, is surveying everyone from members of the Billings City Council, to middle school and high school counselors, to the state’s suicide prevention coordinator.
His seven-question survey asks respondents why they believe Yellowstone County and Montana have one of the highest suicide rates in the country. He also explores what community resources are involved in preventing suicide. He further asks how strongly respondents feel that the ease of access to firearms contributes to the high rate of suicide.
The biggest surprise is the responses to the gun question, said Tutokey, a gun advocate. Montana ranks third in the nation for per-capita gun possession. Kentucky is first, followed by Utah, with Wyoming in fourth and Alaska fifth.
“A lot of the people I talk to don’t seem to think it’s a problem,” Tutokey said. “I think access to firearms is a big problem. Impulsivity and firearms don’t go together.”
During 2010, at least 227 Montanans killed themselves. In 2011, the number dipped slightly to 225, although Montanans still killed themselves with greater frequency than residents of any other state in the nation. An estimated 15 Montanans attempt suicide every day. The problem is so prevalent that mental health leaders have characterized it as a public health crisis.
Tutokey, who is working toward a bachelor's degree in nursing, is conducting the survey as part of his studies. His primary focus is suicide among people age 15 to 24, particularly in Yellowstone County.
In Montana, between 1999 and 2009, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 14 and adolescents ages 15 to 24, behind unintentional injuries like auto and farm accidents.
In the years between 2010 and 2011, 57 youth ages 15 to 24 killed themselves in Montana.
Tutokey is at the midway point of his research and said he is already able to draw several conclusions. There are ample suicide prevention services, programs and tools available, although people, especially adults, do not take advantage of them as much as they could or should, he said.
More curricula should be taught in middle schools and high schools that teach students about the signs and symptoms of depression and how to cope with it, he said.
“We need to convince our young kids that it’s OK to walk into a counselor’s office,” he said. “And, if adults would just become more involved with our young people, things might start to change a little bit.”