Montana moves to address youth suicide
(Mont.) In a state with one of the highest rates of suicide in the country, recent actions taken by lawmakers to boost mental health resources in schools and improve teacher training on the subject are applauded by community leaders.
Whether such efforts are growing as a result of the increasing rate of suicide among Montana students or increasing awareness of mental health issues, Jack Shifflett, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Missoula branch, says those measures are also long overdue.
“Montana has a very high suicide rate, and youth suicide has increasingly become a problem,” Shifflett said in an interview. “This is our community and we don’t want to lose anybody, and we especially don’t want to lose young people who have their whole lives ahead of them.”
Policymakers in Montana have taken numerous steps in recent years to improve mental health awareness and suicide prevention efforts in recent years.
In 2015, Gov. Steve Bullock signed legislation requiring the Montana Office of Public Instruction to develop a suicide awareness and prevention training curriculum for faculty and staff at schools.
The governor’s office, in association with the Montana Broadcaster’s Association, also launched a media campaign of TV and radio public service announcements focused on raising awareness about suicide prevention in the state. One ad urged youth to reach out to their friends and offer help to those who are showing signs of suicide, noting that suicide was the number two cause of death for young people in the state between 2005 and 2014.
And last year, Bullock signed two bills aimed at improving preventative measures in schools. One requires districts to develop plans to address suicide prevention and response, and calls for the Office of Public Instruction to provide guidance and technical assistance to schools on youth suicide awareness and prevention training materials. The bill also recommends teachers receive two hours of youth suicide awareness and prevention training every five years.
A second bill signed last year provides $250,000 in grants to assist school-based suicide prevention, as well as another $250,000 specifically for Native youth suicide prevention programs. Native American and Alaska Native youth ages 15 to 24 have the highest suicide rate per capita in Montana, at nearly 17 per 100,000, according to state data.
Nationally, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among adolescents age 12 to 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And mental disorders among children have emerged in recent years as a major public health issue that impacts as much of 20 percent of the K-12 population each year—or about 10 million children.
Throughout the country schools have made efforts to expand professional development to include mental health awareness and training that helps teachers identify troubled students, and provide students with more resources.
Federal data shows that Montana has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. And the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 20 percent of high-school students in the state have seriously thought about committing suicide. In some counties the number was as high as 25 percent.
Following the passage of legislation last year and recent increases in funding, districts have begun taking steps to provide more resources to students and educators. Great Falls Public Schools, for instance, hired a licensed drug and alcohol counselor and a licensed mental health counselor to help address the substance abuse and mental health issues within the district.
The district also offers different paths to graduation that were developed to help struggling students earn a diploma.
And Missoula County Public Schools has recently updated its suicide prevention plan to include 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.
According to Shifflett, it is important that adults are able to have discussions regarding mental health issues or suicide with kids, and help provide them with resources or a support system.
“Conversations about suicide or mental illness are difficult but they are absolutely necessary, and we’re doing what we can do to facilitate those conversations in schools and in the community,” Shifflett said.
For more resources or direct help contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK ).