While Montana has the highest per capita suicide rate of all 50 U.S. states, several groups gathered on Monday at RiverStone Health in hopes of giving a boost to suicide prevention efforts in Yellowstone County.
“We can address it through prevention, through education, through communication,” said Mike Yakawich, chairman of the Suicide Prevention Coalition for Yellowstone Valley.
Several dozen people gathered outside of RiverStone Health for the presentation, which featured speakers from the coalition, the Montana Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Planting Seeds of Hope and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The overwhelming message was that resources are available to those struggling with thoughts of suicide and their families and, with some work, the public can help.
That’s especially important in Montana, where suicide is twice as likely to happen as in the nation’s general population. In 2011, the Montana Department of Health and Human Resources reported 452 deaths by suicide.
“There are people out there that are willing to talk to you, that are willing to give you advice and let you know that you’re not alone,” said Leon Rattle, from Planting Seeds of Hope, a group that helps provide access to suicide prevention resources to American Indian tribes in Montana and Wyoming.
Two local woman who each lost a son to suicide also spoke, sharing their stories and advocating for education and awareness. Joan Nye’s son committed suicide in 1999 at the age of 19. She is now involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and said suicide doesn’t pick just one group.
“It happens in every walk of life,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. It can affect anyone.”
Flapping lightly in the wind behind the speakers was a quilt adorned with the images of past Billings suicide victims, a little info about them and the words “Montana Faces of Suicide.”
Jill Wilson, a suicide awareness educator, talked about how her son committed suicide at the age of 19 in 2009 and how it’s important not to “live on ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’” and instead focus on education.
“We need to be kind to each other, believe each other and reach out to each other,” she said.
Mental illnesses that can lead to suicide are often difficult for families to deal with, or even address, which makes education and a public show of support all the more important, Nye said.
“There should be no more stigma (with mental health care) than there is about getting treatment for diabetes or asthma,” she said.
One way the public can help erase that stigma is to participate in the Out of the Darkness walk on Sunday. It is a prevention awareness walk including people who have survived suicide attempts, people who’ve lost of a loved one to suicide and the public and helps fund the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The gathering was part of Suicide Prevention Awareness Day, which was the keynote day of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
“We are going to bring Montana down from number one (in suicides) per capita, all the way down to number 50,” Yakawich said.