Missoula collaborative launches new suicide prevention campaign

Susan Hay Patrick, chief executive officer for United Way of Missoula County, announces the new suicide prevention initiative on Monday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

With the number of self-inflicted deaths nearing another record in Missoula, a group of community leaders crowded into a small room at United Way on Monday to launch a new suicide prevention campaign.

As of November, 30 people had completed suicide in Missoula this year – a daunting figure that places the city near the top in a state that’s already ranked number one nationally for its suicide rate.

“If it were murder, if it were car accidents – if a single cause of death was inexplicably and tragically taking so many people – we’d declare it a public health crisis,” said Susan Hay Patrick. “We’d bring in every possible resource to address it.”

Patrick, chief executive officer for United Way of Missoula County, said the new initiative aims to “shine a light of hope” on depression and mental health issues, and to encourage people to seek help.

Known as “Project Tomorrow,” the effort replaces an earlier campaign launched in 2014 under the Western Montana Suicide Prevention Initiative. That program was born from a similar need, though Patrick said the groups behind it weren’t always aligned in their approach.

“We’re on track for a third record-high year in terms of suicide,” Patrick said. “We came together and decided we really needed to raise our game. We needed to amplify our efforts, especially as the holiday season approaches.”

The collaboration, which includes local nonprofits, schools, the University of Montana and other organizations, has turned to evidence-based programs that have proved effective in reducing suicides, Patrick said.

The campaign includes a multi-media project and links to local and national suicide prevention lifelines, along with educational material funded by a $10,000 donation from Wells Fargo and marketing material provided by Windfall, Inc.

“Suicide is an option, and for them on any given day, that option is viable and it makes sense,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “Just that notion that tomorrow is an option is incredibly valuable to someone in the thick of it.”

Jan Schweitzer, president of the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce, said men age 35-60 lead Montana’s suicide rate. From January 2014 to March 2016, nearly 54 percent of those who completed suicide in the state were between 35 and 64 years of age.

Such a statistic takes a toll on the state’s workforce and often has tragic consequences for those left behind.

“These are people we work with every day – these are people we know in our workplace,” said Schweitzer. “They’re our colleagues, our neighbors, our family members, our coworkers and friends.”

According the Centers for Disease Control, farm and agricultural workers, including loggers, lead the nation in their rate of suicide. The other leading occupations include the construction trades, mechanics and repairmen, factory and production workers, and architects and engineers.

“There’s thousands of people in our state and community employed in these fields,” she said. “It has a devastating ripple effect. It affects those left behind who have to go back to work and face that empty desk or work station.”

Suicide also affects the younger generation – something Mike Frost, the director of counseling at Curry Health Center at the University of Montana, and Superintendent of Missoula Public Schools Mark Thane, have seen first-hand.

“I believe Project Tomorrow is critical, and I believe we need to be talking about the issue,” Thane said. “We need to have a robust and frank conversation. I believe we can move the needle, not only in Missoula, but in the state of Montana and, in particular, in our school system. We’ve been touched by this tragedy all too often.”

Patrick said Montana’s reputation for suicides can be contributed to a number of factors, from alcohol to isolation. Easy access to firearms also play a role, with guns serving as the weapon of choice in completed suicides.

“We have easy access to lethal means,” Patrick said. “Guns are part of our culture. We’re encouraging people to lock up their guns. Suicide is a very compulsive act. Just the act of trying to find that combination or unlock that gun, we think is effective in preventing suicides.”

Patrick also attributed the state’s shortage of mental health care providers to the problem.

“As a state, we’re a mental health shortage area, and we need to address that,” she said. “Part of our work will involve public policy and shining a light on that issue – that we have too few providers. Another factor, we need to normalize seeking help.”

The suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK. Help can also be sought by texting “MT” to 741-741.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com