When it comes to suicide awareness and prevention among local youth, Missoula County is teeming with experience, expertise and resources.
It’s a matter of necessity in a county that has one of the highest suicide rates in a state that has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. The most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 20 percent — that’s 1 in 5 — high-school students in Montana have seriously thought about committing suicide.
But it’s also the result of a concerted community effort to tackle a persistent problem.
The 2017 Legislature saw more than a dozen bills posing solutions to different aspects of Montana’s suicide problem; two concerning Montana students received legislative approval and were signed into law.
House Bill 381, sponsored by Billings Republican Rep. Dennis Lenz, requires school districts to develop plans to address suicide prevention and response, and obligates the Montana Office of Public Instruction to “provide guidance and technical assistance to Montana schools on youth suicide awareness and prevention training materials.” It also “recommends,” but does not require, that training be made available to school staff on an annual basis at no cost to employees.
House Bill 118, sponsored by Democrat Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy of Box Elder, directs tobacco tax money and other funds into a special revenue account, and appropriates $250,000 for grants to assist school-based suicide prevention, plus another $250,000 for Native youth suicide prevention programs.
These bills was passed after the Montana Suicide Mortality Review Team specifically highlighted the need for all Montana schools to embrace a local suicide prevention program expressly designed for students and staff. The team had studied 555 suicides that took place between January 2014 and February 2016, and recommended that Montana students should be taught resiliency and coping skills; older students, the team urged, should be screened for depression and taught to identify the warning signs of suicide.
These are skills that help build a buffer against the contributing factors to suicide; a buffer that will last an entire lifetime.
Now, school trustees in districts across the state that do not already have a suicide prevention plan are working to adopt one, and those that already do, like Missoula County Public Schools, are seizing the opportunity to update them.
The Office of Public Instruction has resources for schools and parents posted on its website, as well as sample policies and procedures for districts to follow as they go about crafting their own plans. Earlier this month, MCPS trustees approved a revision to the plan originally created in 2003 and most recently revised in 2015.
The language changes made to the relatively short (less than one full page) policy include the addition of school volunteers to the list of people who should receive suicide awareness training, and also allow for local training requirements to go beyond those required by the state. The revisions are currently open for public comment, and can be found on the MCPS website under “policy revisions.”
Other school districts would be smart to follow the Missoula trustees’ lead. Smaller counties lacking sufficient resources to tackle suicide in their communities should also tap into the expertise offered in places like Missoula.
A new state rulemaking committee promises to provide further statewide guidance. The 16 members of the Suicide Prevention and Response negotiated rulemaking committee, charged with making recommendations to the Office of Public Instruction, were named and held their first meeting this past December.
Missoula’s own Heidi Kendall is one of them, and brings an array of expertise to the committee table. Not only is Kendall a trustee with MCPS, she is also the suicide prevention coordinator for Missoula and was recently named to the board of the Montana chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Kendall’s office has provided “gatekeeper” training called Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) in every MCPS district building so far, and offers the same suicide prevention training free to anyone in Missoula County, from individuals to businesses, church groups and informal clubs. Her office is also a key partner with Project Tomorrow Montana, which is led by the United Way of Missoula County and includes schools, police, health care providers and many others dedicated to doing their part to stop suicide.
OPI’s rulemaking committee similarly comprises a diverse group of individuals, coming from different parts of Montana and with widely different backgrounds as parents, educators, administrators and mental health care professionals. One of their first orders of business will be to help prepare an economic impact statement gauging the cost to Montana’s school districts of implementing suicide prevention plans.
Their work coincides with one of Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen’s new key initiatives: the Montana Hope initiative is a partnership involving Shodair Children’s Hospital and the Montana School Counselors Association. Its aim is to use a whole-child approach that incorporates anti-bullying efforts and others to chip away at suicide from all angles.
The thing all these approaches have in common is that they seek to involve the larger community in building collaborations to provide education and training about suicide. As Kendall told the Missoulian Editorial Board last week, successful suicide prevention educates the whole community, including students, parents, coaches and volunteers.
With guidance and encouragement from the state Office of Public Instruction, even the smallest school district in Montana can construct a suicide safety net with experts in their own communities and in other, larger counties.
And they should press their community leaders and state representatives to ensure they have the tools they need to turn the tide against suicide.