The three-part series on suicide survivors featured recently in the Missoulian highlighted the unique kind of grief that affects people who have lost a loved one to this tragic and most preventable form of death.

Montana’s suicide rate is far too high, about twice the national rate. Missoula County has lost about 20 people to suicide in the first half of 2017. The people we lost were veterans, parents, grandparents, children, neighbors, teammates and friends. Each of these community members left behind families, friends and coworkers who are struggling to carry on after an unfathomable loss.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. That’s why we need to take it very seriously, treating it as a public health issue that concerns all of us.

Project Tomorrow Montana does just that. A coalition of organizations and individuals committed to reducing suicide in our region, Project Tomorrow Montana is an initiative of United Way of Missoula County and the Missoula City-County Health Department that aims to reduce suicide through education, awareness and action.

Our website, events, posters, classes, public service announcements and presentations revolve around this three-part approach — because it saves lives. Using the education/awareness/action model, Project Tomorrow Montana has educated nearly 3,000 health care professionals, school counselors, college students, business people and community members about how to identify suicide warning signs and how to intervene safely.

The education component involves attending a suicide prevention class. By learning the signs of suicide that most people show before they make an actual attempt, we can recognize — before it’s too late — when someone might be feeling hopeless. We learn it is OK to ask someone if they are thinking about killing themselves. If they are having such thoughts, knowing how to connect them to the right kind of care can literally save lives by buying people time, and a chance to see another day. Each person who takes a suicide prevention class makes our community a little bit stronger and more resilient. To request a class or presentation for your organization, or to find out about attending one, visit our website: www.projecttomorrowmt.org.

Awareness means understanding that depression and thoughts of suicide can happen to anyone. Almost all of us, at some time or another, feel deeply sad or even hopeless. Recognizing this helps us to know that we are not alone. Reaching out for help is the most courageous and best way to combat these feelings. When we share with others that we, too, have experienced depression, we normalize seeking help.

The action component of suicide prevention includes keeping people who are feeling suicidal safe from lethal means. Keep firearms locked up in a safe or with a trigger lock, and store medications in a locked cabinet. Also, never leave a suicidal person alone. Call the suicide prevention lifeline or send a text to the crisis text line. If it’s a real emergency, call 9-1-1 or take the person to the hospital. Always take it seriously when someone says they’re suicidal, and get them to help. This is how we save lives.

Suicide Prevention Week began Saturday in Missoula with the Out of the Darkness Walk. Activities continue all week, and include a suicide-prevention class at the YMCA, a compelling one-man performance focusing on storytelling and resiliency, and a film that takes us behind the scenes at a crisis line for veterans. Almost all events are free and open to the public. To see the week’s schedule, visit www.projecttomorrowmt.org.

Let’s commit to helping make tomorrow beautiful for all Montanans. 

Susan Hay Patrick is chief executive officer of United Way of Missoula County and chair of Project Tomorrow Montana. Heidi Kendall is suicide prevention coordinator for the Missoula City-County Health Department.

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