The Whitefish School District last year suffered its first brushes with suicide in more than a decade when a high school student and the spouse of a district employee took their lives. The separate incidents highlighted a dramatic bump in Flathead County's suicide rate in 2009, and rocked a community unaccustomed to public conversations on the issue.
"You never can forecast, you can never guess, you can never predict a completed suicide, so obviously we're in a state of shock," says 11-year Whitefish School District Superintendent Jerry House. "There's no other way of saying it...We've never, ever had a suicide to the best of my knowledge."
Nearly 80 parents, educators, public officials and mental health professionals from the Flathead Valley met last Thursday night in Whitefish to address last year's tragedies and some increasingly troubling statistics. Flathead County has for years ranked in the top 100 counties nationwide for suicides; last year alone, the Flathead's annual suicide rate nearly tripled from an average of seven to 20.
As House says, the problem has become a serious community concern, prompting the creation of a fledgling 15-member committee aimed at pooling resources and guiding public discussion through events like last week's town hall meeting.
"Everybody has their own little toolbox," House says. "You stay in-house and the school district does this, the fire department does that, the police do this, the clergy does something different. But we've never as a town, as a community, connected the dots. We've never seen what's in somebody else's toolbox.
"You look out in our community—aunts, uncles, neighbors—there's a huge, huge effect it has on people," House continues. "That was the driving force."
The Flathead isn't alone when it comes to high suicide rates in Montana. The state ranked second in the country for suicides in 2007 according to the Center for Disease Control, and has landed in the top five states every year for the past three decades. Data from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) shows suicide is the ninth ranking cause of death in Montana, claiming an average of 65 people a year from 2000 to 2009. The SPRC states that for every completed suicide in the state, there are six uncompleted attempts.
"I applaud Whitefish for trying to make it at a community level," says Montana Suicide Prevention Coordinator Karl Rosston. "Unfortunately, usually people don't do it until there's been a suicide in their community, and then you get people who want to rally. I wish more people would take initiative...but it's a reaction rather than a prevention measure."
As Whitefish begins to map a long-term plan for suicide prevention, specialists are struggling to expand services throughout western Montana. Suicide prevention coordinators in Flathead, Ravalli and Missoula counties have their sights set on establishing a regional task force to curb the state's startling statistics, and the initiative stands to benefit neighboring counties historically lacking in experienced prevention resources.
"Why should we just do suicide prevention work in these three counties when there's a need in some of the outlying counties as well?" says Brian Cherry, suicide prevention coordinator for the Ravalli County Youth Suicide Prevention Alliance. "The people who haven't done it, rather than inventing the wheel, could talk to us about what we've done and decide if they want to listen to us."
Cherry is working with Maureen O'Malley of the Missoula Suicide Prevention Network and Joan Schmidt of the Flathead Suicide Prevention Coalition to gain funding for the task force from the Montana Mental Health Settlement Trust, a $9.5 million agreement reached in September in a state lawsuit against pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. Cherry says the funding could "ensure sustainability" for prevention services, but he understands funding for suicide prevention is notoriously hard to secure. O'Malley says the groups have operated on a $10,000 shoestring budget annually since a 2007 legislative bill set aside $400,000 for statewide hotlines and prevention programs. Yet even that cash flow is proving unsustainable.
"We have virtually no money at this point in time," O'Malley says. "So we've all applied for some of that mental health trust fund money, and one of our more visible projects then will be establishing that task force. At one point we did have a statewide task force that was just kind of becoming cohesive, but money for suicide prevention is really tough to come by these days."
The trio agrees the difficulty in raising funds is due in large part to the stigma suicide carries. Cherry says suicide awareness is a "constant grind" because people view it as a "spooky subject." That belief has stymied long-term discussions in Missoula in the past, O'Malley says, and could hinder not only creation of the task force but also the success of Whitefish's efforts to build a more cohesive prevention network.
"The taboo is so strong that people are afraid to walk into those events," O'Malley says. "Several years ago when we had several deaths in the school district, we sponsored a town hall meeting and we had more than 174 people at the first meeting, all speaking out, all with ideas. We had two other meetings, and by the time we got to the third one, we had 25 people."