Suicide work too important to let paperwork stand in the way

2014-07-18T00:00:00Z 2014-07-18T07:23:03Z Suicide work too important to let paperwork stand in the way The Billings Gazette
July 18, 2014 12:00 am

Who knew the biggest hurdle in getting to the bottom of suicide in Montana was a half-a-page of paperwork?

Apparently, though, that much paperwork is just too much work for coroners, so the work of a state suicide review task force remains incomplete because of the unwillingness of some coroners.

Last month, the 2014 Montana Conference on Suicide summarized the task force’s work, which had been stymied by “roadblocks.” Turns out the roadblocks are the very people who should be the most helpful to the force — the coroners, a statewide group made up of both civilians and law enforcement officers.

To be fair: Some coroners have compiled the information the task force wanted and because of their effort, the group is able to build baseline data that will hopefully be helpful in intervention in the future.

Yet Terry Bullis, executive secretary for the Coroners Association, said that the problem really boils down to time. He said if the task force would just reduce the information down to a single page, then there might be more compliance.

For the record, the form the state task force uses is a page-and-a-half, meaning it would appear the coroners’ reason for not filling the current one out boils down to a half page.

While we believe some coroners may be pushed for time, it’s nonetheless an office they seek and are paid for. Moreover, the state task force also said that some reports had come back with just one word on them, a pretty blatant disregard for the work the state is doing.

We might suggest that lawmakers give the task force power to levy fines on coroners who don’t comply, but that might create a hostile situation when what is needed most is for all parties to work together to better understand the chain of events leading to suicide and what interventions could be done to thwart it. It would be sad if the suicide task force was reduced to squabbles between a state board and the counties’ coroners.

What’s even more disconcerting is the idea that some coroners may not fill out the form or they are intentionally returning it nearly blank because of the perception that families don’t want information released.

“I don’t think we are obligated to complete the questionnaire,” Bullis told The Billings Gazette. “Some families don’t want this information out there.”

And while we appreciate the sensitivity of the information, clearly a better job of education needs to happen for coroners. The information that is given to the task force is considered private and will not be shared. In fact, it cannot be shared by state law.

We believe that it’s also important for the coroners to realize that they are public servants, not obligated to do what the families wish, but what the law and the state requires. It would be sad if the state had to resort to forcing them to fill out the paperwork just so that it could try and understand suicide better. It shouldn’t be this hard. You’d think after having to do a couple of post-mortem evaluations on suicide victims, they’d be a little more willing to do whatever it takes never to see another.

We understand that families and friends may feel as if there is a stigma attached to suicide. They may fear information being released. But, if we are ever to make progress at curbing what is a statewide epidemic, we will have to gather this sensitive information. We cannot shatter the taboo unless we are armed with information. We would hope the coroners would serve as that key link between the family and the state, reminding them information is confidential and will go to a useful, meaningful effort.

This is too important to let something like paperwork stand in the way of answers.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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