HELENA — Ninety percent of all people who commit suicide have a severe, often undiagnosed, mental illness.
Bold and blunt.
That is how Dr. Gary Mihelish, president of the Helena chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, opened the second day of a two-day suicide prevention workshop. Sixty people from across Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and New Mexico attended the training that will help them train others in their communities in recognizing the signs of suicide.
Attendees included clergy, mental-health advocates, school officials, parents and suicide prevention advocates.
A mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illness is a medical condition that often results in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life, he said.
Serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.
An estimated 10 percent of adults with bipolar disorder commit suicide. Between 55 and 85 percent of adults with bipolar disorder injure themselves, and 33 percent of youths who commit suicide have bipolar-disorder symptoms.
It is not possible to predict whether people with serious depression will attempt suicide or when, Mihelish said. Thoughts of death occur for most people with serious depression.
For many, these thoughts are not a wish to die, but a wish to be released from the mental anguish they are suffering. Or, they feel like such a burden, they think that others would be better off without them, Mihelish said.
“Most people with depression will talk about their thoughts of suicide if you ask them about it,” he said.
That, said Bryan Moreland, of Billings, is the single most powerful takeaway he has gleaned from the workshop — to ask someone in despair if suicide is being contemplated.
“If you won’t ask the question, you won’t know the answer,” he said.
Kim Seeberger’s 17-year-old daughter, Tiffany, killed herself in 2008. Seeberger, of Missoula, has been taking one step at a time, trying to find her footing in the aftermath of daughter’s death. She isn’t sure of her role in the days ahead but is committed to helping spread the word about the warning signs of suicide.
“I wish I had been educated in the warning signs,” she said. “It’s not like one person can solve the problem.”
Seeberger said she is also committed to helping make sure other families do not go through what she and her family did.
Studies show for every completed suicide, there are six direct survivors. Each year there are more than 200 suicides in Montana. This translates to more than 1,200 new survivors every year. Survivors of suicide are at three times the risk of completing suicide themselves.
Valerie Falls Down, an adolescent counselor with the Crow Nation Wellness Center in Crow Agency, was one of five community leaders from Crow Agency to attend the training. Their attendance translates into more resources for a community grappling with suicide.
“I see our youth struggling back home,” she said. “We want to take these resources back and mold and shape them to fit our culture, our community.”
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in Montana for people ages 10 to 34.
The workshop, the first of its kind in nearly a decade, also attracted the attention of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. His regional director, Jennifer D. Madgic, attended Friday’s session, gathering information for the senator.
“The best way to improve Montanans’ mental health is to leave no stone unturned when it comes to better understanding the causes and improving access to treatment of mental illness,” Tester told The Billings Gazette. “I will continue to push forward smart legislation that increases resources and raises awareness of mental illness so more Montanans can get the care they need.”
Montana has been plagued with having one of the highest rates of suicide in the nation for more than three decades.
“We will not stop suicides,” Mihelish told attendees. “But as sure as I’m standing here, I know you will save at least one life. You will make a difference.”