A Montana high school reported that six students attempted suicide recently; that's only the number school officials were told about. This is one shocking example of the prevalence of suicidal behavior that has made Montana one of the worst suicide states for generations.
The first step in changing this culture of death is recognizing the problem — before a life is lost. Karl Rosston, Montana’s suicide prevention coordinator, has been traveling the state with the goal of training Montanans to recognize warning signs of suicide risk, and educating them on how to get help for a person at risk.
Last week he was in Billings training 36 physician assistant students at Rocky Mountain College. Before that, he trained internal medicine residents at Billings Clinic. Rosston’s goal is to train Montana’s primary care providers to administer quick, simple screenings that usually involve about 10 questions. The patient’s answers help the medical professional determine whether mental health follow-up is needed.
Montana attitudes about depression and suicide response have changed in the past couple of years, said Rosston, who has been a professional counselor for 25 years.
“I’m getting more and more requests from nursing programs and hospitals,” he said. “Hospitals are being inundated with suicidal clients.”
According to the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, nearly 9 percent of Montana high school students attempted suicide in the 12 months before taking the survey, compared to a national average of 8 percent.
Even more concerning to Rosston, the survey data indicate that students who attempted suicide have many other life problems, such as bullying, drinking and drug abuse. “It’s not just suicide and depression, it’s affecting their health across the board.”
Although youth suicide gets more attention, the highest rate of suicide in Montana is actually for adults ages 45-64. In 2014, Montana recorded 251 suicides, and a rate of 24.5 per 100,000 population. That was nearly double the national average rate of 13.4. The 2015 statistics are worse: 267 suicides statewide. So far in 2016, at least 61 Montanans have died by suicide.
Billings Public Schools have taken steps to help students who may be at risk. The school district added a professional mental health counselor at each of the three high schools in January. As reported by The Billings Gazette’s Matt Hoffmann, those counselors’ schedules have already filled up with troubled students.
“The chances of someone seeking out and getting help is much higher in a school building than in a community setting,” said Eric Arzubi, a child psychiatrist at Billings Clinic.
Unfortunately, the schools have limited resources to provide mental health assistance to students. The high school levy on this week’s ballot would fund two additional mental health counselors, as well as 7.5 new teachers to focus on struggling and advanced students.
A vote for the levy is a vote to help deal with the serious mental health crisis among our youth.
But much more must be done. Screening for depression should be added to the routine screenings administered at our schools. We check kids’ vision, why not check their risk for a serious mental illness?
Earlier this year, the U.S. Prevention Task Force called for depression screening for all youth ages 11-17.
Primary care providers, educators, parents and teens all need to be educated. The stigma of mental illness can only be dispelled with the light of knowledge. Mental illnesses are diseases that can be treated like diabetes, heart attack and cancer. There’s no shame in seeking care. The shame is in lives lost or shattered by lack of effective treatment.
– Billings (Mont.) Gazette