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Montana's Rate Of Youth Suicide By Gun Is Among The Nation's Worst

Percentage of Suicides by Mechanism, Montana Residents, 2012-2016.
Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services
Percentage of Suicides by Mechanism, Montana Residents, 2012-2016.

"Montana persistently ranks in the top three states with the most youth who die by suicide, and their method of choice is overwhelmingly guns."

So starts an article in the latest edition of Montana Business Quarterly, put out by economists at the University of Montana. MTPR’s Kevin Trevellyan asked the article's author Daphne Herling why she wrote it.

Daphne Herling: One of the most important factors in suicide is the means by which people choose to attempt it and thus we took on writing a paper about guns as the means youth choose to attempt suicide.

Kevin Trevellyan: Can you talk a bit about why guns pose extra suicide risk?

Herling: Because of their lethality, 82 percent of people who attempt suicide with guns are successful, and it has been shown that very few people who attempt suicide and survive will try it again. If they can survive an attempt they're more likely to deal with the problems and then go ahead and live a normal life.

Trevellyan: Now, I understand that the rate of suicide by firearm is much higher in Montana than elsewhere in the United States. Do we know why that is?

Age-specific Five-year Suicide Rates, Montana and U.S. Residents, 2012-2016.
Credit Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services
Age-specific Five-year Suicide Rates, Montana and U.S. Residents, 2012-2016.

Herling: It's a complex interaction, and those are based on things like access, availability, acceptability, and the perception of lethality. So all those sort of cultural norms intersect, and Montana has a high rate of gun ownership, that in and of itself is not any reason to explain away suicide using guns, but it is more culturally acceptable, perhaps.

Trevellyan: A child gun access prevention law pushed by a student group died in the state legislature this year. You mentioned in your piece that Montana might not have the political will for this kind of legislation. Why is that?

Herling: Montanans are very loathe to discuss guns, and any kind of restriction to guns. And child access prevention laws have nothing to do with gun control, but everything to do with keeping kids who are having suicidal thoughts from accessing them. There are 13 states in the nation that have passed what is called 'extreme risk laws,' a way for a parent or family member or law enforcement to get a court order to keep somebody that they know is a suicidal risk from accessing or owning a gun. And these extreme risk laws have shown to be quite successful. They have not tried to pass one in Montana yet.

Percentage of gun owners and non gun owners who say each method is essential for gun owners.
Credit Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends. America's Complex Relationship With Guns, June 22, 2017.
Percentage of gun owners and non gun owners who say each method is essential for gun owners.

Trevellyan: Can you describe the importance of non-legislative means to try to curb youth suicide and youth gun violence?

Herling: That has been more successful in Montana.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services has distributed over 20,000 trigger locking devices. Law enforcement will hand them out and train people how to use them. Simple solutions, like gun safes, and keeping an unloaded gun in a locked place; that gives people time to think about their actions because it's been shown that people who have survived attempted suicide -- there was only 10 minutes between thinking about it and acting on it.

Trevellyan: Youth suicide is not just a problem in Montana right?

Herling: No, it isn't. Montana just has particularly high rates. It's an extraordinarily complex issue it's not just about keeping kids from getting ahold of guns. It's about anti-bullying laws. It's about accepting our LGBTQ youth. It's about providing mental health services. Montana needs to do a better job at providing mental health services, particularly to our rural youth, because the more rural a county, these suicide rates tend to go up and that is definitely a question of funding at the legislature.

And I think one of the most gee-whiz unfortunate numbers that I certainly came across was the high rate at which girls use guns in Montana versus the nation. Girls between the age of 10 and a teen use guns to attempt suicide six times the rate of girls nationally. And that's just unacceptable.

Daphne Herling is the senior research analyst for the Montana Child Research Initiative at the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Kevin is a UM Journalism graduate student and reporter for MTPR.
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