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Why Does Montana Have a High Suicide Rate?

Photo courtesy of Eva the Weaver/Flickr

Today, May 9, councilors from around the northwest will be meeting in Helena to learn new techniques for suicide prevention. The meeting place is interesting, because Montana is, in many ways, an epicenter for suicide in America. All ten of the states with the highest suicide rates are in the rocky mountain region.

“It’s really a silent epidemic in our state and has been for nearly 100 years,” says suicide prevention coordinator for the Montana Department of Health and Human services Karl Rosston. “Montana is currently number three in the nation for suicide. We’ve been in the top five for the last 40 years, and if you go back to when vital statics were first done in 1918, we’ve been a top tier state for suicide for nearly 100 years. If you look at it, our rate for suicide is nearly double the national average.”

So, why is suicide so prevalent in Montana? Rosston points to a number of different geographic and cultural factors:

Social Isolation – There are around 6.7 people per square mile in Montana, while the national average is 88.7. Lack of nearby neighbors, friends, and family means that suicidal tenancies may not be discovered until it is too late.

Alcoholism – Montana is near the top in DUI, alcohol related deaths, binge drinking and underage drinking. Nationally, at least 1/3 of all suicides have alcohol in their system.

Guns – Montana is number two in the percentage of people that own firearms. While firearms account for only five percent of all suicide attempts, they nationally account for more than 50 percent of all completions. In Montana, 65 percent of all suicides are carried out by firearms.

Economics – Montana has about 160,000 uninsured with about 20 percent of children living more than 100 percent below the poverty line.

Mental Health Infrastructure – In a large, population sparse state, it is difficult for many people to contact professional help simply because there aren’t close facilities.

Stigma – Perhaps the biggest factor, according to Rosston, is the social hesitation that Montanans have to admit that they are depressed, to mention suicide to others, or to contact professional psychological help.

Withdrawal, fascination with death, lack of basic hygiene, and substance abuse are all strong indicators that a friend or loved one may be contemplating suicide. If you notice these signs, Rosston says one of the best things you could do is to speak about suicide with your friend or loved one. According to Rosston, there is no evidence that bringing up the topic of suicide will lead someone to commit suicide.

Suicide Prevention Coordinator Karl Rosston

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