Butte struggles for answers after three teens commit suicide

2014-01-11T08:59:00Z 2014-01-11T09:03:08Z Butte struggles for answers after three teens commit suicideBy ANGELA BRANDT Montana Standard The Billings Gazette
January 11, 2014 8:59 am  • 

The pews were filled with as many people as they could handle. Other friends and loved ones lined the walls of the small church. Even more packed the hallway, standing shoulder to shoulder to the front door of the building.

“This is a difficult day for all of us because we’re saying goodbye to someone we love,” the pastor told the crowd.

“We are all hurting.”

On Friday, Butte grieved the loss of a vivacious 14-year-old girl who aspired to be valedictorian at Butte High School. She was the third Butte teen who committed suicide in the last six weeks. The suicides have left the community saddened, confused and wondering where to go from here.

“We’re all sitting here and we have questions. It’s driving us crazy,” Pastor Dave Knight said Friday during the services.

Why did the teens decide to take their lives? Could anything have been done to stop them?

It’s hard to understand why a bright, fun, intelligent girl with her whole life seemingly ahead of her would make that decision, Knight said.

Just as every person is unique, so is their reason for being suicidal. An estimated 15 Montanans attempt suicide every day. For the last 35 years, the Treasure State has been near the top of the nation in the rate of people taking their lives.

In a typical classroom, it is likely three of those students have attempted suicide in the past year, noted Karl Rosston, suicide prevention coordinator for Montana.

“Suicides are complex and also a symptom of a brain condition,” said Matt Kuntz, executive director of Montana’s Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“You can seemingly do everything right and still lose someone to suicide,” he added.

The most important thing to remember, Kuntz said, is forgiveness.

“You have to forgive yourself,” he said.

Those close to suicide victims often blame themselves and question what they should have done differently. Kuntz said instead they should give themselves credit for the efforts they made and love they gave.

“You never know how many times you saved that person. You’ll never be able to realize how much you gave to their life,” he said. “It’s important for people to realize that it could have been earlier.”

The next step, Kuntz said, is to be proactive to try to prevent future incidents. Seeking professional treatment is vital, he added.

“It’s not something that families should try to fix on their own anymore than you would try and cure someone with cancer,” he said.

In the wake of the recent suicides, local officials have gathered to see what more can be done. This week authorities from many agencies, including county health, schools and law enforcement, met to work on this crisis.

From 2003 to 2012, four Silver Bow County children took their lives, according to the state Bureau of Vital Statistics. Within the last six weeks, three Butte teens, all under the age of 18, have committed suicide.

“I think when the unspeakable happens we do whatever we can, not only as agencies but also as individuals. This was surprising to me. This is very concerning for our community, obviously,’’ said Karen Sullivan, county health director.

“In the past weeks we have had what I would view as a rash of them. But we have had some years where we haven’t had many. Hopefully the services and resources that we do have are working.’’

Sullivan said there’s room for improvement.

“What it may indicate is that those services and resources we do have in place may be doing what they are intended to do. Can we improve? Yes, and can we get better of having one hand know what the other is doing? Yes. Can we refer better? Yes,” she added.

The suicide crisis is not a new one. A needs assessment conducted in 2011 found on top of Montana’s high rate of suicide, Butte has even worse numbers. The county’s numbers are higher than both the national and statewide stats. The suicide rate in the state is 20.3 per 100,000 people. Silver Bow County has a rate of 27.5 per 100,000.

“It’s a problem that has been in Montana and Butte-Silver Bow for a long time, but when you have the type of occurrences you had in the last week it really draws attention to it,” Butte Chief Executive Matt Vincent said.

The 2011 assessment also found the prevalence of “severe emotional disturbance” among children aged 9 to 17 is significantly higher than the national rate. An estimated 11 to 13 percent of local youth were being treated for that diagnosis in 2006.

“What we saw in the last couple of weeks is the worst possible product of that,” Vincent said.

Some of the gaps in services noted in the latest assessment include the need for more psychiatrists, especially those specializing in children’s mental health, and more therapeutic in-patient treatment for youth.

Another needs assessment, the type of which is done every three years, will be conducted this year.

Officials in Butte said they will share their work with surrounding communities.

Nearby Anaconda had an even higher suicide rate from 1997 to 2011: 29.1 per 100,000. This number makes Deer Lodge County the place in the state with the highest rate of suicide.

Other counties in southwest Montana including Beaverhead and Madison also rank in the top 10 for the state. An Anaconda needs assessment found three determining factors for these stats: A higher prevalence of depression, financial hardship and lack of services for those in mental health crisis.

A statewide suicide review team has formed and will meet for the first time in Helena next week.

“We knew we didn’t have enough stats,” Kuntz said.

“How do we go deeper?” he asked.

Contact Brandt at 406-496-5519 or angela.brandt@mtstandard.com.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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