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More Montanans committed suicide in January than any other month this year. That bleak statistic is one of many unveiled in a new report from the Montana Suicide Review Team, which found that a total of 155 Montanans committed suicide between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 of this year.

Yet, in breaking down the statistics behind this tragic number, the report also offers several rays of hope – and a list of actions Montanans can take to help prevent suicide in the future. 

Sadly, Montana and Wyoming have long shared the highest suicide rates in the nation, with more than 23 deaths per 100,000 people. That's almost twice the national average. And in 2013, Montana counted 238 suicides - the state's highest number yet. The Montana Suicide Review Team's report, which breaks the state into five regions, found that the region including Missoula County has the highest number of suicides in Montana. 

The report also points out that most suicides were committed by men between the ages of 35-64, and that 66 percent of suicides in Montana are carried out with the use of a firearm. That's in stark contrast to the national average of 51 percent. 

Even more stark: firearms were used by more than 70 percent of the 23 youth (those under the age of 24) who committed suicide. 

In the Billings Gazette story reporting on this study, Montana suicide prevention coordinator Karl Rosston suggested that one way to turn these numbers into meaningful action would be to encourage Montanans to make sure their firearms are inaccessible to children and others exhibiting the warning signs of suicide. 

The report ends with a list of eight "interventions identified that may decrease suicide risk:"

  • Community awareness and training in suicide awareness
  • Depression screening by primary care providers
  • Firearm safety program
  • Earlier referral for hospice services 
  • Depression screening as part of DUI convictions
  • Wellness checks/crisis intervention training
  • Depression screening and suicide prevention training in Montana schools
  • Coping skill and resiliency skill development in elementary age children

Fortunately for those of us who live in western Montana, a new initiative launched just a few months ago has already set up the springboard from which we may be able to get a jump on these recommendations. 

The Missoula City-County Health Department, United Way of Missoula County, The Institute for Educational Research and Service at the University of Montana, and a suicide-intervention training companies called LivingWorks Education teamed up earlier this year to established the Western Montana Suicide Prevention Initiative. The first major project of the new initiative was to put together a prevention summit, which was well-attended by experts, professionals and many other members of the community.

The summit helped identify resources and local needs, and the initiative continues to work to close gaps in the suicide prevention network and contribute to prevention efforts.

Now, the new report from the Montana Suicide Review Team promises to provide the initiative with the hard numbers needed to hone its efforts. The seven-member team, appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock last year, will continue studying suicide in Montana and its causes through the next two years at least. To that end, it is collecting data from every county in the state, identifying lapses and inconsistencies in information and sharing patterns with the public as it does so. 

This report gives Montana the necessary statistical foundation from which to begin focusing its suicide prevention efforts. In the meantime, every Montanan can take steps to help prevent suicide right now.

We can start by ensuring that our firearms are stored safely at all times. Let's all educate ourselves about suicidal behavior so we know what to watch for and how best to respond. And let's ramp up our support for local suicide prevention resources, so our neighbors and loved ones have somewhere to go for help when they need it most. 

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