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Editorial: Taking Suicide Seriously

By Pat Bellinghausen

A recent series of suicides at Montana State Prison and the high overall rate of suicide in Montana have spurred state leaders to action.

In the prison, which has reported four suicides in a few months after having none for 12 years, Corrections Director Bill Slaughter is taking the problem seriously. He has promised to hire a deputy warden, institute training for corrections staff and retain an outside expert to review the prison and recommend suicide prevention measures.

The larger tragedy is the overall number of Montanans who end their own lives.

  • Someone in Montana commits suicide every other day.
  • The state has the second-highest rate of suicides among the 50 states, exceeded only by New Mexico.
  • Montana's suicide rate is nearly double the national rate.

Suicide affects Montanans of all ages. Victims of suicide in 2002 ranged from age 11 to over age 75. Gov. Judy Martz allocated $50,000 of last year's federal grant money to youth suicide prevention. Recently, she and Gail Gray, director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services, announced plans to fund suicide-prevention projects. They are working to ensure that the money is well spent.

This infusion of attention and funding could be the first step toward an effective, comprehensive, science-based prevention program. But that would require an ongoing commitment of resources.

"It's not about money," Martz told a Helena bureau reporter. "It's about education and it's about awareness."

The governor is only partly right.

Ninety percent of people who die by suicide have untreated or inadequately treated mental illnesses, according to research conducted through the National Institutes on Mental Health.

In her book on understanding suicide, "Night Falls Fast," psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison wrote:" Nor is major success at suicide prevention a realistic goal if treatment for mental illness remains unaffordable and out of the reach of millions of Americans because health insurance is poor or nonexistent; if hospital stays for the severely mentally ill are limited to days, rather than weeks; or if society continues to be unaware of the suffering of so many people in its midst."

Let's build suicide-prevention awareness in Montana, but recognize that those who are at risk will need good mental-health care for a lifetime.

Copyright 2004, Used with permission from The Billings Gazette.

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