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Livingston Looks To Prevention After High Number of Suicides

Young people who’ve experienced homelessness in Montana feel like they often fall through the cracks of programs designed to help kids fleeing abusive homes or needing a place to stay. Stock photo.

Livingston is still trying to come to grips with a cluster of suicides that claimed four lives almost a month ago. Experts there say different people are dealing with the crisis in different ways.

Local psychologist Dr. Rachel Jergenson said during a recent public meeting one resident confessed to bullying on the Internet.

“They stood up and said, ‘That was me. I’m sorry. I apologize. I really don’t know what to do with myself. I’m in this deep place of pain,'" she said. "You couldn’t have scripted it better as a psychologist. It was a really meaningful interaction.”

But Montana’s State Suicide Prevention Coordinator, Karl Rosston, said other residents seem to be in a state of denial. Rosston offered blunt advice to local school officials after the first suicide of a local teenager in February.

"The first thing I said to them was, ‘Identify your next kid because that’s usually how it happens. You’re going to have a group of kids who are at risk so identify them now,'" he said.

So, Rosston said school officials identified kids they deemed most at risk of harming themselves. Maybe they were socially marginalized or showed signs of potential mental health issues. He said that when they identified kids, they were met with resistance, mainly from parents.

"They still had a lot of resistance from parents not wanting to lock up their firearms. So, just that hesitation to really understand the depth of this problem is going to continue to result in many, many people dying unnecessarily," he said.

Montana’s suicide rate is almost double the national average.

In 2014 it stood at about almost 25 per 100,000 people.

The national rate is 13 per 100,000.

Experts know why Montanans take their own lives so frequently: social isolation, easy access to firearms, and a high rate of alcohol abuse. Even altitude seems to be a factor. Research shows a spike in suicides at 2,500 feet above sea level and higher. Montana’s average suicide last year occurred at just above 3,500 feet.

But according to state suicide prevention coordinator Karl Rosston, undiagnosed and untreated mental illness is one of the biggest factors:

"Specifically most of the time it’s anxiety or depression," he said.

Montana tends to have very limited access to mental health care. Compounding the problem is what Rosston called our ‘cowboy mentality’ – that independent, frontier spirit.

"When it comes to feeling depressed we see it a weakness," he said. "We see ourselves as being a burden. If you think you’re a burden how likely are you to ask for help?"

He said that it's unfortunate because depression is now seen as one of the most treatable of all psychiatric illnesses in the country.

Livingston’s Dr. Rachel Jergensen adds that people with depression aren’t always thinking rationally to begin with.

The private practice psychologist points out that even the healthiest adolescents are prone to rebelling against societal norms.

"Suicide is kind of a non-option, culturally in a lot of ways until someone breaks that taboo," she said. "Once it’s been broken I think it almost opens the door on joining someone who’s taken this journey for themselves. It can almost become a brotherhood.”

According to state Suicide Prevention Coordinator, Karl Rosston, it will take an enormous amount of hard work to counter-program that mindset. After all, Montana’s had a high suicide rate for nearly 100 years. We’ve been in the top five since the 1940’s. Rosston described it as a cultural issue that’s going to take a cultural shift in thinking to make any progress, and they're already preparing with the next generation.

"We have a great program for first and second graders that focuses on teaching kids resiliency and coping skills. That’s been found to be effective 30 years later,” he said.

Suicide experts say there’s a fine line between talking about teenage suicide and glorifying it. Rosston challenges schools to responsibly talk about it when it happens. He said the worst thing we could do is avoid the subject.

"When kids don’t have information then they’re going to make assumptions. A lot of times those blow up into something a lot worse," he said. "You don’t want to glorify or glamorize the death. That what leads to what we call 'suicide contagion.'”

He recommended openly talking about suicide with kids, discuss the warning signs as well as some possible resources. In other words, be practical about it.

Livingston psychologist, Dr. Rachel Jergensen offered this personal opinion:

"Part of being human is that we actually all have that freedom to either choose to live our lives or to end them. I think that’s terrifying," she said. "That’s the way we were created, with this personal responsibility deep at the core that we have to choose life and choose the good.”

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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