Claire R. Oakley, PhD, Director of Health Promotion at RiverStone Health

Claire R. Oakley

At RiverStone Health, our mission is to improve life, health, and safety in Yellowstone County, making our community a healthier place for all. As the public health agency in Yellowstone County, part of our work involves suicide prevention.

On September 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, and through the month of September, we mourn the horrible loss of human potential in the more than 800,000 people worldwide, who die by suicide each year —one suicide every 40 seconds. In Montana, 29 out of every 100,000 people die by suicide, double the national rate of 14.5. In Yellowstone County, the annual suicide rate is 20 out of every 100,000 people.

Montana has the second highest level of military veterans per capita, yet we are number one for veteran suicides with more than 49 deaths by suicide for every 100,000 veterans in the state.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline outlines several steps we can all take to prevent suicide.

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ASK and BE THERE: Research shows that people who are having thoughts of suicide feel relief when they are asked about the subject in a kind and caring way. If you are concerned that someone may be thinking about suicide, ask them! RiverStone Health is actively involved in the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Yellowstone Valley, which leads free community sessions teaching people to recognize the warning signs of crisis and offer help. The training is known as QPR, for the three simple steps of question, persuade and refer. In the same way that people trained in CPR can help save lives, QPR can help prevent suicide.

KEEP THEM SAFE: Promoting the secure storage of firearms can help prevent a tragedy. Members of the Billings Mayor’s Challenge team to prevent suicide among service members, veterans, and their families and the area Suicide Prevention Coalition are working on spreading awareness about secure firearms storage. The groups use an informational campaign sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Local members are available to talk to community groups about the value of securing firearms in the home—an action that does not conflict with Second Amendment considerations. Limiting access to lethal means is a proven method of reducing suicide. Data shows that 88 percent of firearm deaths in Montana are suicides. In Yellowstone County last year, 75 percent of suicides by veterans involved a firearm.

HELP THEM STAY CONNECTED: the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline recognizes that creating a network of resources and individuals offering support can reduce feelings of hopelessness that can lead to suicide. RiverStone Health is actively involved in the leadership of The Billings Mayor’s Challenge team and involved in the statewide Governor’s Challenge to build healthy networks. One effort involves enhancing Montana211.org as the “go-to” resource for community information on basic needs and support. Montana211 lists resources that are available for all, but it also quickly routes veterans, service members and their families to information specific to them. In Billings, peer networking for military families includes monthly “meetups.” See https://www.meetup.com/Billings-Veterans-and-Family-Community-Meetup/

FOLLOW UP: The Governor’s Challenge team is advocating universal screening for depression and suicide in healthcare settings. Team members are improving community resources and educating healthcare providers about the importance of safety planning and “caring contacts.” If a patient expresses suicidal thoughts during a healthcare visit, providers learn to establish a safety plan. “Caring contacts” following an emergency department visit or hospital discharge provide continuity of care and let individuals know that their lives matter to others. Research indicates both techniques have been effective.

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Claire Oakley, PhD, Director of Health Promotion at RiverStone Health, can be reached at 651.6462 or Claire.oak@riverstonehealth.org.