***A personal story***

As is my custom while preparing my Montana Morning news program, I was listening to the police scanner early in the morning last week, when I heard the 9-1-1 operator issue a call saying a person was threatening to take their own life. The response from law enforcement agencies was swift, and there was constant communication on the scanner as numerous officers rushed to the address given. They were converging from several different directions, each one volunteering to handle a different aspect of the call, one to set up an incident command, another to close the street, and others to respond to the home itself. 

I found myself transfixed, listening to the tone of each call, and hearing the hope in their voices that they would be in time to help keep someone from taking the precious gift of their own life. Suddenly, the calls stopped, as if a door was closed. Over a full minute passed, before one officer keyed his microphone. There was a moment of profound silence before I heard a voice heavy with emotion say, '10-12 (on scene) self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.'

We don't publish stories about suicide, out of respect to the individuals and their families, however, I was so moved by the response to this incident that I reached out to Undersheriff Jason Johnson with the Missoula County Sheriff's Office to talk about how law enforcement personnel respond to suicide calls. Following, is that story. 

Peter Christian KGVO

"I think it's unique for sheriff's deputies, because a lot of us are coroners and we do death investigations, so we are all too familiar with the results of someone taking their lives, and just how tragic that is for the families that they leave behind," Johnson said. "When that call comes out, there's an almost desperate sense of trying to help that person, because we know what the end result can be."

Johnson said in a suicide call, all agencies respond as quickly as they can.

"I'm not just talking about police and sheriff and university police and Highway Patrol, I'm talking about all first responders," he continued. "EMT's, hospital staff, when we get that call, it's definitely a community response. Since we see the results first hand as first responders, we definitely unite to get that person the help they need."

Johnson said what each first responder wants to bring to the situation is a sense of hope.

"Really, what we're doing is we're trying to talk to people and give them hope," he said. "Although they're in a very dark place at that moment, we try to get them to think about their family and to let them know that they are important to the people in their lives. We follow that up by letting them know there are resources in our community that can help them get through a dark situation."

Johnson described the traumatic experience of having to inform family members of a loved one's suicide.

"The word I would use is devastation," he said. "There's sadness, anger, all those things are what people leave behind when they think about suicide. It's really tough, especially when you know that help is available for people in that situation. If they would just stop and take a step towards that help, that's our hope."

Johnson said the effects of suicide never really go away for the family of the victim.

"There's a story of a recent suicide of a police officer in Billings," he said. "It was just so sad, because everyone said he was such an incredible officer, but now people will remember him in this way, instead. That's what is so sad, because that's the last chapter in their life when people just have so much to offer. There's just so much more than that."

From the Missoula County website:

Montana currently has the highest rate of suicide in the United States. In the past ten years, the rate of suicide in Montana is 21.4 per 100,000 people (the national average is 12 per 100,000). Montana has been in the top five for nearly 40 years. Suicide persists as a major public health problem in Missoula County. In 2014, Missoula County had the highest rate on record (33.8 per 100,000), close to three times the national average.


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