by Tiffany Sweeney

Suicide.

When we see this word, it is frequently accompanied by a whirlwind of emotions. Yet, we find ourselves shutting down, not wanting to discuss it. However, as Montanans we can no longer avoid these conversations. Our great state has one of the highest rates of suicide in the nation, ranking in the top five for deaths by suicide per capita in the last forty years. We have even seen the number one spot multiple times. With all the greatness our state and its people have to offer, this is one list we do not want to be a leader.

The number of deaths by suicide in Montana is staggering, being almost twice that of the national average. Suicide does not discriminate; it affects every population. However, we are seeing more deaths among certain groups here in the state. Males make up more than 75% of deaths by suicide. It is the second leading cause of death in those aged 10-44 years, and our American Indian population is approaching three times the national average.

According to research by our state suicide mortality review team, a number of factors are contributing to our high rates, including access to more lethal means (i.e., firearms), alcohol use, social isolation, a sense of being a burden, altitude, undiagnosed and/or untreated mental illness, lack of resiliency and coping skills, and our societal stigma against depression.

We frequently worry that the more we talk about suicide, the more our death rates will rise. This is a myth. The truth is the more we talk, the more those contemplating will be willing to talk about it, seek help, and feel less isolated.

Let’s start the conversation by looking for signs one is contemplating taking his/her own life.

Talking about it directly or indirectly. One may feel he is a burden to others or is experiencing unendurable pain (physical or emotional). He may feel trapped and wants it all to end. Helplessness and/or hopelessness are an underlying message that is frequently heard or felt when interacting with one debating suicide.

Changes in behavior. An individual may increase substance use, including alcohol or drugs. Behavior may become more reckless, riskier, or even more aggressive. On the other hand, others may show more withdrawal symptoms; less participation in previously enjoyed activities and/or social isolation. In some cases, individuals may even begin saying goodbye to loved ones and giving away prized possessions.

Changes in mood. An individual may also display signs of depression and anxiety. Moods may even swing to irritability and/or rage.

In addition to the warning signs, there are also factors that may put individuals at a higher risk of suicide.

Health: Research has shown that some mental health conditions have higher rates of suicide, including but not limited to, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Also, those who battle substance abuse addictions as well as those with chronic pain may also be at a higher risk.

Environmental: An individual who is currently experiencing a major stress event in their life, such a death, divorce, or job loss, may also be at higher risk. Other factors may include prolonged stressful events (e.g., bullying, harassment, unemployment, etc.), access to lethal means (e.g., firearms, drugs, etc.), and exposure to another’s suicide or the details pertaining to it.

Historical: Finally, if an individual has previous suicidal attempts or a family history of suicide (attempts or completions), risk can also increase.

If someone you know displays any of these signs or risk factors, be direct and open with them. Ask the big looming question, “Are you thinking about ending your life?” or “Are you debating suicide?” Start the conversation. Let your friend or loved one know that you are there to listen, that you care, and then seek immediate medical help. BECAUSE SUICIDE IS PREVENTABLE.

Visit these resources for more information on the state suicide statistics as well as how to identify if your loved one may be at risk:

2016 Montana Suicide Mortality Review Team Report: dphhs.mt.gov/Portals/85/amdd/documents/2016MTSuiMortalRevRpt.pdf

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – Montana Chapter: afsp.org/chapter/afsp-montana

Montana Department of Health & Human Services: dphhs.mt.gov/amdd/Suicide

Learn more about suicide prevention in upcoming issues of Treasure State Lifestyles.