While Montana suffers from one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, the lack of a statewide plan for “suicide hotlines” has left the job of crisis support to community mental health organizations, which may not be up to the challenge of providing that critical first line of defense in preventing suicides. It’s a situation that is in need of attention, state mental health officials say.
Missoula poses a prime example of the inefficiency of state crisis response systems. A call to 9-1-1 from a suicidal person will likely result in a police officer being sent to the scene, provided his or her location can be readily determined. If a person sounds depressed and in need of verbal counseling, 9-1-1 dispatchers will inform them of the 24-hour emergency line maintained by the Western Montana Mental Health Center (MHC). Likewise, calls to First Call For Help, a catch-all crisis hotline, are quick-linked to the MHC emergency line.
But as MHC Director Gene Durand notes, their crisis hotline is not set up as a conventional suicide hotline. Calls during business hours are answered by a MHC receptionist, who is trained in suicide awareness but not suicide counseling. After-hours calls are answered by a switchboard operator. In either case, standard procedure dictates that a mental health professional, one of a team of staffers who serve on a rotating 24-hour on-call system, be paged to respond. Both MHC and the switchboard have the ability to direct-connect the mental health professional to the person in crisis.
Nevertheless, holes in the system are large and readily apparent. For one, the on-call mental health professional may not be readily available by pager. Besides the chances of simple human error, members of the mental health team often go places where pagers are prohibited, such as jails. Likewise, crisis calls to MHC during regular business hours are not guaranteed to get an immediate response. In fact, two afternoon calls from the Independent to the emergency crisis hotline last week went unanswered. Compounding the problem is the difficulty of even finding a crisis hotline number listed in any Missoula-area phone book.
Durand says that MHC has begun efforts to provide a more reliable suicide crisis line. “We’re truly not set up along the lines of a suicide hotline,” Durand says. “It needs to be more responsive. We’d much rather have people in distress talking to a person with training than reaching an answering service.”
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services has implemented a “Strategic Suicide Prevention Plan,” which includes streamlining and monitoring suicide hotlines throughout the state. In 1999, 161 suicides occurred in Montana, or roughly 18 per 100,000 people. That figure is nearly double the national average of 10.7 per 100,000. The 24-hour emergency hotline at MHC is (406) 532-9710.