HELENA — Montana’s Suicide Review Team, the first of its kind in the nation, is running into some roadblocks as it examines “gruesome” documents hoping to discover how more suicides can be prevented.
Dr. Leonard Lantz, a Helena-based child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist who chairs the Suicide Review Team, spoke briefly of the roadblocks during the 2014 Montana Conference on Suicide in Helena.
One of the biggest barriers for the volunteer team has been securing consistent and complete reports from county coroners.
The seven-member team, appointed in 2013 by Gov. Steve Bullock, has pledged to examine every suicide after Jan. 1.
Of the 95 confirmed suicides since then, the team received coroner reports on only a few of them. They hope for 100 percent participation from coroners.
Each coroner handling a suicide death receives a questionnaire from Karl Rosston, the state’s suicide prevention coordinator. With the results, he may contact health care and mental health professionals who have been involved with the deceased. The team will also review if the person had a criminal background and hopes to get toxicology reports from the state crime lab.
There have been significant discrepancies in the coroner reports. Some have offered one-word responses. The team is focusing on getting more thorough and consistent information in a timely manner.
Lantz is undaunted.
“I am here as a person who wants to make a difference,” Lantz said.
Although the conference update was short on specifics, the team hopes that by October it will have some detailed preliminary data to share with the public.
Wyoming and Nevada are in the process of creating similar panels.
For more than 30 years, Montana health officials have had to guess about the causes of the state’s high suicide rate. Now, the Suicide Review Team is mining death certificates for hard data, hoping to identify risk factors and causes of suicide without overwhelming coroners.
Among the possible causes are social isolation, easy access to firearms, alcohol abuse and the stigma associated with receiving mental health care. The goal is to identify resources and interventions that can reduce the rate.
For the next three years, the panel, which includes a pastor, psychologist, psychiatrist, sheriff/coroner and licensed clinical social worker, will focus on suicide and make recommendations to the governor.
“I feel very positive,” Rosston said. “We have an excellent team. Suicide is a cultural issue in Montana … there needs to be a cultural shift. It will take time.”
During the past three years there have been at least 678 suicides in the state.