For a long time, Montana has had one of the highest per capita rates of suicide in the nation, and getting people to do anything about it remains a major task.
At the state Capitol on Friday, the group Mental Health America of Montana displayed dozens of posters made by Montana middle and high school students that try to pierce that barrier of silence and stigma that may keep people from stepping in and helping others.
“Real friends ask,” says the poster judged the best in the state, made by Austin Allery, from Custer County High School.
The poster project began four years ago with college students. The idea is to come up with posters to help spread the word, but also to engage the students in the subject, said Sarah Connor, an AmeriCorps VISTA worker with MHA-Montana.
A theme for the posters this year was not just to talk about the problem of suicide and its warning signs, but to take the next step and get people to intervene.
“Students started talking about it and seeing what else they can do,” said Connor, who recently graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in psychology and philosophy.
She reached out to schools around the state, with varying degrees of success. Among the top participants were schools in Scobey and Miles City.
The group has been in Montana for 65 years. Its national counterpart began 103 years ago with the forging of a bell made from the shackles of former mental patients, said Dan Aune, executive director of the state group.
The problem in Montana is related to, among other things, isolation and a lack of access to mental health care. The rejection of expanded Medicaid by the 2013 Legislature, he said, dug a deeper hole from the state.
On the other hand, Aune said, the education and advocacy group is working on ways to bring people in touch with mental health providers through technology and the Internet.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer to … a virtual mental health center,” he said. “We think that’s one of the answers to the high suicide rate, is get people the access.”