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Tackling Suicide as a Community
Whitefish town hall meeting addresses difficult topic
WHITEFISH – Montana has the second-highest suicide rate in the nation. The facts are out there and the mental health resources to deal with the issue are growing. But, as discussed at a recent town hall meeting, without a communitywide effort to address suicide, progress is stunted. Indeed, it takes a village, but it starts with informed individuals.

On Dec. 2 at Grouse Mountain Lodge, an eight-person panel of health care professionals, school district officials and clergy members discussed what the community can do to increase its knowledge and become better equipped to prevent suicide and cope with its aftermath when it does occur.

The meeting was part of an effort spearheaded by Whitefish School District Superintendent Jerry House to encourage public discussion on the difficult topic. While the meeting’s scope reached everybody, the focus was often kids. Last year, a student within the district committed suicide, as did the spouse of a school staff member.

House said the community’s efforts to deal with the issue must be more interconnected – from law enforcement to health care to the school district to the clergy. Everybody can bring something to the table, their own “toolbox,” but working independently is inherently self-limiting, a reality not lost on House.

“Everyone has individual toolboxes,” House said. “The purpose of tonight is to connect the dots. How as a community can we use all the individual tools?”

Joan Schmidt, program coordinator for Flathead Valley Suicide Prevention Coalition, said someone dies by suicide every 48 hours in Montana, nearly the same rate as traffic deaths. It’s the second-leading cause of death among adolescents in Montana, while Flathead County’s overall suicide rate ranks among the top 100 counties in the nation.

Schmidt gave a PowerPoint presentation with a slide that stated: “Suicide is a public health problem. It’s everyone’s business.”

“If we get into trouble, we’ll find a solution,” Schmidt said. “Maybe not as individuals but together among all of us.”

Schmidt’s message focused on prevention and intervention – detecting warning signs and knowing what to do when a crisis is imminent. Other panelists hit on similar themes while several speakers discussed postvention, which involves the management of grieving after a loss.

Among the warning signs friends and family should be aware of, according to resources provided by Schmidt’s coalition, are dramatic mood changes; loss of interest in activities or relationships; feelings of hopelessness; increase in substance use or a recent relapse; increased anxiety or irritability; talking about suicide or threatening it; sleeping difficulties and more.

Identifying the signs of suicide is one part of the equation, the panelists said, and another key part is taking away the means: firearms and pills being the most common. Lock up guns and store pills in a place where they’re not accessible.

Dr. Michael Newman, a psychiatrist representing Pathways Treatment Center, said the availability of pills to teenagers is a major problem.

“We’ve seen too many kids who have access to the means – the pills,” Newman said. “We have to do a better job.”

If someone you know has indicated an intention to commit suicide, Newman said you must immediately seek help. The person may be combative or agitated, but it’s necessary to intervene, he said. Calling 9-1-1 or the emergency room at the nearest hospital are both options.

“If you do nothing else, that’s what you can do,” he said.

Similarly, Jeny Covill, the chaplain at North Valley Hospital in Whitefish, said as a member of the clergy she must notify the appropriate professionals if people discuss hurting themselves. And once in their care, health care professionals don’t leave anything to chance for a person who is potentially suicidal.

Steve Zwisler from North Valley Hospital said people who have attempted suicide “have some of their rights suspended.” Even if they want to leave the hospital, they can’t until they have been evaluated and cleared to go.

“We say, ‘We can’t let you go home,’” Zwisler said.

In the last calendar year, Zwisler said North Valley Hospital cared for 46 patients who attempted suicide and had another 24 who talked about it while at the hospital. Of the 46, seven were age 20 or younger. Thirty-one had substance-use problems.

The Whitefish School District has made efforts to deal with teenage suicide, along with other issues in the area of mental health, such as bullying. Kerry Drown, the middle school’s principal, has been active with a “quick response team” to expand the district’s capacity for preventing and managing crises.

“We try to be proactive as possible,” Drown said.

Robin Bissell, a psychologist for the school district, spoke highly of a “student assistance program” in which staff is trained to address mental health concerns and support groups are formed. A pilot version of the program has been implemented at the high school and will later be adapted to K-8.

More than 70 students “self-referred,” or voluntarily signed up, for the pilot project, Bissell said.

“The feedback from students has been profound and very meaningful,” she said.

While there was general agreement that the Dec. 2 meeting was an important step in addressing suicide in the Flathead, Newman described an urgent need to do more – much more.

“As a community, I regret to tell you all, we’ve failed,” Newman said. “We’ve failed miserably. So what do we different? That’s the question.”
On 12-07-10, destiny commented....
Two years ago my son attempted suicide and what saved him?  One concerned mother who chose to give me a call after something she heard her daughter say that my son was saying weird things.  It was also my friend that saved him because she went straight to my home…
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