Robin Williams’ suicide has rocked the nation. How could someone with such talent, so universally beloved, not see life as worth living?
Closer to home, too many of us in western Montana have lost family, friends and colleagues to suicide. Their deaths leave a hole in our hearts and in the fabric of our community. As we grieve the loss of a loved one to suicide, we agonize over whether we missed warning signs, and ask ourselves what more we could have done.
Sadly, suicide in Montana is not a new problem. For decades, since statistics were first collected, our state has been in the “top five” nationally for suicide. Currently, Missoula County has a higher suicide rate than the rest of Montana. Although much of the focus on prevention is geared to teens, suicide in Montana is most prevalent among adults, with the highest rate among men ages 55-64. It is especially high among Native Americans.
There are many reasons for Montana’s high rate of suicide, including too little access to mental health care; too easy access to lethal means (guns are used in 64% of all suicides in Montana); and a rural culture of rugged individualism that can frown on seeking help for family, personal or work problems.
We must stem this troubling tide. Suicide is a public-health crisis, with tragic consequences for our community. We must shine a light on this dark problem. We must see ourselves as part of the solution. No matter our background, age, ethnicity, experience or vocation; whether we are health care professionals, social workers, clergy, the media or ordinary citizens; whether we work with teens or adults or senior citizens or veterans, preventing suicide is everybody’s business.
Suicide is one of the most preventable forms of death. Research shows that most people with thoughts of suicide don’t truly want to die, but see no other way to escape their pain. With help, they can make the decision to stay alive. Effective prevention strategies and intervention programs are available – but too few people are aware of them. We must convey and teach these to the broadest audience possible. Everybody can be an effective gatekeeper where suicide is concerned.
Toward that end, the Missoula City-County Health Department, United Way of Missoula County, The Institute for Educational Research and Service at The University of Montana, and LivingWorks Education, a suicide-intervention training company, are spearheading the new Western Montana Suicide Prevention Initiative. Our mission is to reduce the number of suicides and suicide attempts in Missoula County through collaborative efforts that promote, support, and increase awareness of suicide, suicide prevention, intervention, and recovery. Our work is rooted in the belief that – by bringing diverse public, private and nonprofit stakeholders together and fully aligning community resources into an effective force for change – we can make our community suicide-safer.
A first step toward that goal is Not Alone: A Missoula Suicide-Prevention Summit. On Tuesday, September 9, community members wishing to be part of broad-based efforts to prevent suicide will gather at The University of Montana to hear from state suicide prevention coordinator Karl Rosston; Missoula City-County Health Department suicide-prevention coordinator Kristie Scheel, and psychologist Sally Spencer-Thomas, a national expert on suicide prevention whose brother’s death by suicide inspires her work.
Breakout sessions at this free summit will include training – also free, in recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week – in effective suicide prevention and intervention; survivor support for those grieving the death of a loved one to suicide; suicide prevention for veterans; prevention strategies and approaches for workplaces, schools and communities; and guidance in self-care and resilience, including addressing the secondary trauma experienced by those who support and work with people at risk of suicide.
Also, because certain kinds of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide among vulnerable people, the summit will include a session on media guidelines for covering suicide. If you’re a radio, TV or print journalist anywhere in Montana; if you blog or otherwise maintain a strong social-media presence, this session is for you.
There is room at the summit for everyone who wishes to shine a light of hope on this tragic subject. For registration information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
And remember, you are not alone: emergency help for those with thoughts of suicide is available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (8255).
Preventing suicide is everybody’s business. Please join us in making it yours.
I’m Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula County. Thanks for listening.