If Montana is ever going to reduce the number of people killing themselves, the issue of suicide needs to receive more than lip service. Hand-wringing isn’t going to cut it, either.
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, behind unintentional injuries such as auto accidents and drownings.
In the two years between 2010 and 2011, at least 57 Montana youth aged 15 to 24 killed themselves.
It is a major public health problem. The barriers to candid discussions about suicide must come down.
There are some encouraging indications that those discussions are beginning to occur. The framework has been erected 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.
It’s a significant starting point.
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 foundation 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.
The “Let’s Talk Billings” campaign advisory panel includes prominent players in the mental-health arena, including representatives from Billings Clinic, RiverStone Health and the Billings chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The Global Health Equity Foundation, in partnership with MSU Billings last year, created a similar innovative suicide-prevention program for teens that proved successful in Miles City. The hallmark of the project is that it allows young people to express themselves in a contemporary way.
The suicide prevention project employs a unique combination of performing arts, social media and community-based mental health services to help reach young people to discuss their challenges and emotions.
The peer-to-peer aspect of a play, combined with a Q&A, moderated by a high school counselor, has been a breakthrough in helping youth talk about depression and suicide in Miles City.
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, health care 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 American Indian youth, a group with an extremely high rate of suicide.
It is a concrete step that transcends lip service.