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Firearms continue to be the primary means of suicide in Montana, constituting 66 percent of the suicides, well above the national average of 51 percent, according to a newly released state report.

Of the 23 youth, age 24 and younger, who killed themselves between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, at least 70 percent used a firearm.

“That single piece of information – that so many kids have access to lethal means – is alarming to me,” said Karl Rosston, Montana’s suicide prevention coordinator.

Some 33 percent of the female suicides in Montana were by firearm, slightly higher than the national average.

The takeaway, Rosston said, is that emphasizing the safe storage of firearms for those with children in the home or those exhibiting high-risk behavior, could be a deterrent.

At 16 percent, hanging is the second most common means of suicide, followed by overdose at 10 percent.

The findings are part of the first report prepared by the Montana Suicide Review team. The seven-member panel was appointed in 2013 by Gov. Steve Bullock to study causes behind the state’s suicide rate, which has been deemed a public health crisis.

For more than 30 years, Montana health officials have speculated about the causes. The 12-page report, based on data collected from coroner reports, death certificates, toxicology reports, health care and mental health information, provides some of the first data health officials have been able to access.

The report is based on the 155 suicides occurring between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, an average of 19 each month. It is important to note that as a preliminary report, the data comes from a small sample size, Rosston said, and the reliability and statistical significance is marginal. That should improve as the process continues and the sample sizes increase.

To date this year, the age group with the highest incidence of suicide has been 45- to 64-year-olds. Issues that began to arise in this age group include mental health issues, health issues and loss of relationships.

One-third of the suicides that have occurred among the elderly involve issues of severe chronic pain or terminal illness, Rosston said.

“They simply don’t want to be in pain anymore,” he said. “Primary care physicians are vital in addressing this."

Research suggests that 45 percent of the people who complete suicide saw their primary care provider within 24 hours. With the limited mental health resources and the stigma associated with mental illness, primary care providers are often the first contact for those exhibiting high risk of suicide.

One of the unexpected findings is that 53 percent of those who killed themselves in Montana were not state residents.

“One hypothesis may be that people move to Montana for a slower pace of life or a new beginning, but the social isolation so evident in Montana becomes a risk factor,” Rosston said.

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Other highlights of the report include:

  • 38 percent of the suicides occur on Tuesday or Saturday.
  • Males are more likely to kill themselves, accounting for 85 percent of the suicides. Some 131 men died by suicide compared to 24 females.
  • Forty-three veterans killed themselves between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, which is 28 percent of the total suicides in the state. That's higher than the national average of 20 percent.
  • Forty percent of those who committed suicide had identified mental health disorders.
  • Some 77 percent had no criminal history or DUI arrest.
  • Forty-one percent had alcohol in their system at the time of their death; 38 percent had psychotropic drugs, 21 percent had pain killers, 20 percent had marijuana and 9 percent had methamphetamine.
  • 35 percent left a suicide note.
  • In 75 percent of the suicides, warning signs had been identified.
  • Ninety-one percent used a firearm.
  • Seventy-nine percent of victims had less than a college degree.
  • Sixty percent of the suicides occurred after noon.

Given the role alcohol plays in the state’s suicide rate, Rosston said the goal is to eventually provide more training, support and resources to bartenders and businesses with liquor licenses.

In addition to gleaning hard data, the team now has the ability to identify primary survivors on the death certificate to offer support resources within weeks of the death.

“Until now, many survivors did not receive any services and were often left to grieve in silence,” Rosston said.

Survivors of suicide are three times the risk of completing suicide themselves.

The team will continue its work for at least the next two years. The test, Rosston said, will be to see if the sample size holds up and is validated. 

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