Montanans kill themselves at a rate twice the national average, and it's been that way for decades.
For a least the last 30 years, the Treasure State suicide rate has ranked in the top 10 nationally and often in the top five. Wyoming shares the ignominy with its northern neighbor.
The most recent state listings, compiled in 2007, put Montana's suicide rate as the second-highest in the country, behind Alaska. Wyoming was fourth-highest. All of the top five were Western states.
Historically, suicide rates for American Indians in Montana tracked just slightly higher than the state's Caucasian population, according to Karl Rosston, Montana's suicide prevention coordinator. When he started his job in the Department of Public Health and Human Services three years ago, Montana's suicide rate was 20 per 100,000 people. The rate for Montana Indians was 21 per 100,000.
“But the gap has widened in the last few years,” Rosston said. “Montana's rate has stayed the same, but the rate is now 24 for Montana Indians. There have been more suicides among younger Native Americans.”
The Native American population is relatively small, so rates can fluctuate sharply from year to year. The numbers for 2010 will reflect a cluster of six suicides on the Fort Peck Reservation.
In an awful year that officials at Indian Health Service refuse to talk about in deference to the traumatized tribes, four young people hanged themselves, one used a gun and another stepped in front of a train. The youngest was just 10 years old.
A large cadre of state, federal, tribal and private organizations engaged in a newly energized suicide prevention effort in Indian Country believe that suicide takes too big a toll among Native American youth. It is the second-leading cause of death for those in the 10-to-34 age group and eighth leading cause of death overall for Native Americans.
(In Montana, suicide also ranks as the second leading cause of death for ages 10 to 34 among the Caucasian population and is the ninth leading cause when age groups are combined.)
There are lots of explanations for higher suicide rates among Native Americans, but they all boil down to loss of hope. And that breach in native culture is where the attack has been launched. Programs being implemented on reservations in Montana and Wyoming aim to provide a new generation with skills they need to navigate the dark times and see the light of hope beyond.
“People who end their life by suicide don't want to die, but they don't see any hope,” said Clayton Small, who teaches a nonprofit program called Native HOPE (Helping Our People Endure).
Small, a Cheyenne who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., has worked on reservations and in school districts across Indian Country using a program that encourages teens to help each other. It teaches participants how to listen to each other, to recognize the signs that someone is contemplating suicide and to reach out and help.
“Eight out of 10 suicides could be prevented if we can break through the 'code of silence,' ” he said. “It takes changing attitudes and changing communities to pull them out of the trench they're in. They need to know you don't have to keep going down that path into darkness.”
Small has been working with schools on the Fort Peck Reservation, which endured the suicides of six children last year, prompting the tribal council to declare a state of emergency on the northeastern Montana reservation.
It was a traumatizing year for the entire community, but other reservations have suffered similar suicide clusters. Suicide may have first been recognized as an epidemic in this part of the country in 1985, when Wind River Reservation in Wyoming received national attention after nine young men hanged themselves in a two-month period.
“A few years ago it was Flathead,” Rosston said. “Browning and Crow have had bad years, too. They've all had their years that seem worse than other years.”
In November, Indian Health Service, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Bureau of Indian Affairs launched a series of 10 tribal listening sessions across Indian Country and Alaska seeking input on how to help. Results of the sessions will shape the agenda at a national comprehensive suicide prevention conference later this year.
A report on those meetings will detail suicide prevention needs, concerns, programs and practices in American Indian and Alaska Native communities, said Rose Weakee, director of behavioral health for IHS.
“We want to see how the pieces come together,” she said in a telephone interview. “One piece is very clear to us — we need to work in partnership with the tribes. Everyone has a role to play in suicide prevention.”
Suicides are not a new problem for IHS, Weakee said. Currently federal funds support 127 tribes through IHS's Methamphetamine and Suicide Prevention Initiative. Along with domestic violence, those two issues were identified by the tribes as top priorities, she said.
HIS is studying programs that show success and passing them on to other tribes.
The White Mountain Apache, for instance, initiated a program that makes suicide data collection uniform among all agencies and then puts it in a shared data base, she said.
“It will help them get a good sense of what's going on and why,” Weakee said.
Lorna Thackeray can be
reached at 657-1314 or