When it comes to suicide awareness and prevention among youth, Missoula County is teeming with experience, expertise and resources.
It's a matter of necessity in a county that has one of the highest suicide rates in a state that has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. The most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that one in five high-school students in Montana have seriously thought about committing suicide.
The 2017 Legislature saw more than a dozen bills posing solutions to different aspects of Montana's suicide problem; two concerning Montana students received legislative approval and became law.
House Bill 381 requires school districts to develop plans to address suicide prevention and response and obligates the Montana Office of Public Instruction to "provide guidance and technical assistance to Montana schools on youth suicide awareness and prevention training materials." It also "recommends" that training be made available to school staff on an annual basis at no cost to employees.
House Bill 118 directs tobacco tax money and other funds into a special revenue account and appropriates $250,000 for grants to assist school-based suicide prevention, plus another $250,000 for Native youth suicide prevention programs.
These bills were passed after the Montana Suicide Mortality Review Team highlighted the need for all Montana schools to embrace a suicide prevention program for students and staff. The team had studied 555 suicides that took place between January 2014 and February 2016 and recommended that Montana students should be taught resiliency and coping skills; older students, the team urged, should be screened for depression and taught to identify the warning signs of suicide.
Now, school trustees in districts across the state that do not already have a suicide prevention plan are working to adopt one, and those that already do, like Missoula County Public Schools, are seizing the opportunity to update them.
A new state rule-making committee promises to provide further statewide guidance. The 16 members of the Suicide Prevention and Response Committee, charged with making recommendations to the Office of Public Instruction, held their first meeting this past December.
Missoula's Heidi Kendall is one of them and brings an array of expertise to the committee table. Kendall is a suicide prevention coordinator for Missoula and was recently named to the board of the Montana chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Kendall's office has provided "gatekeeper" training called Question, Persuade, Refer in every Missoula school district building so far and offers the same suicide prevention training free to anyone in Missoula County.
The Montana Hope initiative, meanwhile, is in a partnership involving Shodair Children's Hospital and the Montana School Counselors Association. Its aim is to use a whole-child approach that incorporates anti-bullying efforts and others to chip away at suicide from all angles.
The thing all these approaches have in common is that they seek to involve the larger community in building collaborations to provide education and training about suicide.
With guidance and encouragement from the state Office of Public Instruction, even the smallest school district in Montana can construct a suicide safety net for their children.