Legislation that would create a Montana Suicide Review Team is gaining momentum and bipartisan support among state lawmakers.
Though stopping short of saying he would sign the bill, Gov. Steve Bullock indicated that the issue of suicide has captured his attention.
“I’m pleased to see that the Legislature is considering the urgent need to address the number of people who commit suicide in Montana," Bullock said. "We clearly need to do much more to reach out to Montana’s young people, and to our friends, family members and veterans who are struggling with depression, PTSD and other mental illnesses, before it’s too late."
The legislation, House Bill 583, introduced by Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, has passed the House of Representatives and now moves to the Senate.
The review team’s activities would be paid for with a $65,000 appropriation from the general fund in each year of the biennium beginning July 1 this year.
“I am interested in this type of an investigation because I do not think we have sufficiently addressed the key variables of causality, indicators, or at-risk populations,” Cook said. “As a consequence, the Legislature’s response to Montana’s problem has been largely uninformed and thereby, ineffective.”
During 2010, at least 227 Montanans killed themselves. In 2011, the number dropped slightly to 225, although Montanans kill themselves with greater frequency than residents of every other state. In a state with about one million people, on average about 15 Montanans attempt suicide every day. That is approximately 5,500 documented suicide attempts each year.
“The Legislature would not stand idly by if we led the nation in deaths from a specific communicable disease,” Cook said. “Suicide, because of its taboo nature, has been allowed to persist. It is Montana’s dirty little secret.”
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, the umbrella organization for the state’s suicide prevention coordinator, has declined to take a position on the legislation. Some mental-health professionals in the state have questioned the program's effectiveness in reducing the state’s suicide rate.
Dr. Leonard Lantz, a Helena-based child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, said the state's suicide rate remains high because Montana has failed to define the problem.
“Once we define the problem, then we can solve it,” Lantz said.
There is limited data on who is committing suicide in the state, Lantz said. Only limited information from the Montana death certificate provides any data. Better statistics and demographics are keys to defining the problem, he said.
HB583 is an economical yet bold new step in addressing the high suicide rate in Montana, Lantz said. The Montana Suicide Review Team would be made up of professionals such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, county coroner, nurse and clinical social worker. The team would study the incidence and causes of suicide in Montana and make recommendations for community or statewide change.
The Montana Suicide Review Team would be able to access medical records to review suicides while protecting privacy, he said. Lantz also serves as medical director of AWARE Inc., a private, nonprofit corporation that provides community-based services to people with challenging mental, emotional, and in some cases, physical needs.
In addition, Lantz said, results from the Montana Suicide Review Team will allow the state to:
- Design targeted, effective interventions.
- Modify existing evidence-based suicide prevention efforts that will be meaningful and specific for Montanans.
- Develop clear recommendations of new programs and requests for funding to the Montana State Legislature for targeted, effective (evidence-based) suicide prevention efforts.
- Prioritize funding to reach the most at-risk people.
“The suicide review team created by HB583 itself is not the solution but will be the first step toward a real solution — an effective, coordinated effort to reduce the suicide rate in Montana,” Lantz said.
Montana’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness also supports the legislation, saying it recognizes that suicide is a public-health crisis in the state.