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You are not alone if you dread the holiday season. The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy, family togetherness, and merriment. But for many baby boomers, this time of year can trigger feelings of anxiety, overwhelming stress and sadness. The result can either lead to temporary “holiday blues” – heightened by the stress and high expectations surrounding family gatherings, celebratory planning and financial demands – or, in some cases, devastating feelings of loneliness, depression and despair.

Although it is a myth that suicides spike this time of year (November and December are typically the months we see the lowest number of suicides), we still need to be mindful that someone among us may be struggling with something more than just fleeting holiday blues.

An alarming report was recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Montana is currently tied for having the highest suicide rate in the United States – more than double the national rate. For the past 40 years, Montana has consistently been ranked in the top five. The residents of Missoula County are not immune to this epidemic. So far in 2014, Missoula has lost 35 people to suicide – far exceeding any other year on record.

The reasons for Montana’s high suicide rate are complicated and varied – isolation of rural living, lack of access to mental health resources, high rate of gun ownership, large populations of high-risk groups such as American Indians and veterans, high rates of alcoholism and, perhaps most significantly, our pervasive “cowboy up” culture, in which seeking help is oftentimes perceived as a weakness.

On top of the devastating statistics, we are seeing for the first time, nationally as well as here in Montana, a startling increase in suicide among the boomer population. In 2013, the CDC released a study indicating a 30 percent rise in suicide rates from 2001 and 2011 among middle-aged adults. For men ages 50 to 59, rates increased 50 percent. Rates for women ages 60 to 64 jumped almost 60 percent. Boomers now have the highest rate of suicide in our country, and for the first time surpass the high-risk populations of teens and the elderly.

Why are middle-aged Americans struggling with such staggeringly high suicide rates in comparison to previous generations? A reflection of a unique set of unrealistic expectations and stressors specific to the boomer population needs to be taken into account. Financial troubles due to a faltering economy, poorer health, changes in marriage, social isolation and new pressures experienced by the “sandwich generation” (caring for aging parents and older adult children at the same time) are some of the contributing factors experts believe may trigger feelings of disappointment, regret and sadness.

We can speculate on causes, but attention needs to be rechanneled into recognizing suicide warning signs and learning the tools needed to support those who may be struggling. The CDC report underscores the need to expand our understanding of suicide risk factors so we can build on prevention programs that target boomers specifically.

Although 90 percent of people who die by suicide suffer from a treatable mental health disorder (such as depression or substance abuse), experts emphasize that suicide can strike even those who appear content, ambitious and outwardly successful. Among boomers, underlying depression oftentimes goes undetected and unrecognized for years – but sudden changes in personality and/or behavior alerts us that something more may be going on.

Warning signs that someone you know may be thinking about taking their life include:

• Talking about killing themselves directly or indirectly (“I just can’t go on,” “I have no reason to live” or “I am a burden to others”).

• Changes in behavior such as an increase use of alcohol or drugs; stockpiling pills or gaining new access to a firearm; withdrawing from activities; sleeping too much or too little; contacting people to say goodbye; or giving away prized possessions.

• Changes in mood such as depression, apathy, irritability, humiliation or anxiety.

• Life events such as divorce, loss of a loved one or job loss.

Recognizing the warning signs and coded clues from someone in distress is critical in order to decrease suicide deaths. But we need to do more. Preventing suicide is everybody’s business. De-stigmatizing mental health disorders and creating a culture where it is easier to get help is vital to saving lives. Addressing mental health the same way we do physical illness is a good place to start.

Guns are lethal. Reducing access to firearms and other lethal methods is another action we can take in our communities. This is especially relevant to Montanans: Approximately 65 percent of total suicide deaths in Montana are completed by firearms (compared to the national average of 49 percent). For the past few years, firearms contributed to 75 percent of all teen suicides in our state. States with higher rates of gun ownership have higher rates of suicide. Locking up guns or removing them from the house decreases the possibility of an impulsive act.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do to help a suicidal individual is to convey hope. Listen and let them know they are not alone. Offer to talk to a counselor or trusted loved one together. Stay connected – especially during the holidays. We know that spending time with family and friends in meaningful ways can serve as the ultimate protective factor when individuals are experiencing thoughts of suicide.

We are losing far too many lives to this quiet, insidious epidemic. The impact of a suicide death on loved ones, colleagues, friends and the larger community is profoundly devastating. The good news is that suicide is preventable. The vast majority of people who have attempted suicide and then gotten the help they need never become suicidal again. If you or someone you know may be thinking about suicide, help is available – please contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. It’s free, confidential and available 24/7.

The Booming section features a monthly column by a member of the Missoula City-County Health Department in order to assist Missoula baby boomer residents to be healthy and resilient. For additional resources or to schedule a free suicide prevention training, contact Kristie Scheel, suicide prevention coordinator at the Missoula City-County Health Department at 258-3881 or kscheel@co.missoula.

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