As of 2014, Montana had the highest per capita suicide rate in the country, and the number of people that take their own lives here is consistently double the national average. In each of the last two years, there has been a spike of suicides in January.
In 2014 and 2015, a combined total of 68 Missoula County residents completed suicide. And so far, 2016 has been even more deadly. From January through October, 28 people have completed suicide in the county.
Susan Hay Patrick, the CEO of United Way of Missoula County, said it amounts to a public health epidemic that doesn’t get enough attention.
That’s why on Monday, United Way teamed up with the Western Montana Suicide Prevention Initiative and Wells Fargo to unveil a re-branded, major suicide prevention collaboration and public-awareness campaign called Project Tomorrow Montana.
“Because Montana is No. 1 in the nation for suicide, and because the suicide rate in Missoula County is at a record high, we felt an urgent need to expand and raise the profile of our suicide-prevention work, especially as the holiday season approaches,” said Hay Patrick, who will chair the new project. She said the goal is to reduce Montana’s suicide rate through education, awareness, training, intervention, prevention and recovery.
The project got a $10,000 grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation, which Hay Patrick said will provide initial funding for a multimedia outreach campaign designed to publicize suicide-prevention resources. Those include the Montana Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and the national Crisis Text Line (text MT to 741741). The new initiative also has a website, projecttomorrowmt.org.
“This is a project that is designed to shine a light of hope on depression and mental health issues and encourage people to seek help because help is available,” she said.
“Suicide is never the only option. And (this project is designed to) encourage all of us bystanders to learn the warning signs of suicide and reach out to help and hope to our family members, friends, colleagues and loved ones who may be at risk of suicide,” she said.
Hay Patrick said she has struggled with depression at some points in her life, as many people do. She wants to make sure that people feel like it's OK to seek help.
“I hope we can energize a great number of community partners around this issue: the public sector, private businesses, veterans organizations, or medical community, our school system, the University of Montana, our local health department and anybody with an interest in preventing suicide and getting Montana out of the No. 1 spot.”
She added that Montana has a high number of veterans and others that are accustomed to being independent and not asking for help with personal problems. She said the community needs to “normalize” seeking help and create a culture that encourages it.
Mayor John Engen – who recently publicly announced that he spent a month in treatment for alcoholism – spoke eloquently about how alcohol and suicide are intertwined in many cases.
“Recently I have had some experience with a progressive and fatal disease, and that is alcoholism,” he said. “And but for treatment, many of the folks who suffer from this disease, as I do, find themselves on a downward spiral that leads to their demise.
"That demise comes in many cases as a function of a completed suicide,'' he said. "That suicide can be slow or quick, but if it is often completed for folks who suffer from this disease if they’re not treated.”
According to the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, a review of several published studies indicates that 37 percent of suicides are preceded by acute use of alcohol.
“For folks who suffer from depression or other substance abuse addictions, suicide for them is an option,” Engen continued. “On any given day, that option is viable and it makes sense, but for some intervention. In my case, I was fortunate to have the intervention of friends and family and people who love me and care about me.
"When you’re in the thick of it, as folks who are considering suicide are, they don’t see that hope. They don’t see those options, those friends and family, they don’t see tomorrows.”
Engen said the message that “tomorrow is an option” is incredible compelling.
“This community effort means that lives will be changed and saved and the community cost will be diminished,” he said. “It means more folks will live full, complete lives in our community.”
Jason Luckey, a senior vice president at Wells Fargo, said that the company is grateful that United Way can demonstrate how important the need to increase awareness is and how a donation and volunteer hours can help.
“We want to shine a light of hope on suicide and mental health issues,” Hay Patrick said. “And we were very gratified that Wells Fargo saw the urgency of the need and responded so generously.”
Other organizations that are taking part include Missoula County Public Schools, the University of Montana’s Curry Health Center, LivingWorks Education and the Missoula City-County Health Department.