By Martin Kidston

The city of Missoula is teaming up with the World Health Organization and dozens of local groups to recognize the first full week in September as Suicide Prevention Week – an effort to “start the conversation” and reduce the number of Montanans who take their own life.

Last week, Missoula Mayor John Engen joined the United Way of Missoula in signing a proclamation joining the city to the cause, saying the community should support prevention efforts by posing hard-to-ask questions to those who appear to be considering suicide.

“As the statistics attest, suicide is a public health crisis in our country, and in our community,” said Susan Hay Patrick, executive director of the United Way of Missoula. “If any other single cause was taking the lives of 68 of our fellow residents in two years, there would be a public outcry.”

In 2014 and 2015, 68 Missoula County residents completed suicide, according to statistics cited by the city. In an effort raise awareness, a coalition of public and private entities have come together under the Western Montana Suicide Prevention Initiative, each looking to bring that number down.

The team includes the United Way, the Veterans Administration, local hospitals, Tamarack Grief Resource Services and Missoula Aging Services, among others.

“I'm glad it's becoming more known in our community that suicide is such a problem,” said Kate Cotnoir, a resource specialist with Missoula Aging Services and a member of the prevention initiative. “Montana has the highest rate of suicides in the nation.”

According to the American Association of Suicidology, 251 Montanans completed suicide in 2014, more per capita than any other state. The state's suicide rate remains double the national average and has ranked among the top five states with the highest rate of suicide for 35 years.

Many of those who complete suicide are seniors, Cotnoir said.

“People between ages of 55 and 64 have the highest rate in Montana per 100,000 people,” she said. “It's a really sad issue among older adults.”

Cotnoir said the loss of a long-time partner, changing health issues and the end of a career are often contributing factors for suicide among older adults. Aging Services promotes the independence, dignity and health among older adults.

“There's a lot of issues that can go along with it,” Cotnoir said. “We're concerned about the entire community. We really want to shed light on the issue of suicide among older adults.”

The local coalition has rolled out a new slogan and logo under “Heart Missoula.” As part of Suicide Prevention Week, the group is planning a number of events, including a prevention workshop, a showing of an Oscar winning film, a ballet and a one-man play by Kevin Kicking Woman.

Suicide Prevention Week is scheduled for Sept. 6-9.

“We really want to involve these organizations to shine a light of hope on the tragedy of suicide in our community,” said Patrick. “We want to promote positive mental health and reduce the stigma and shame related to suicide. If we can't talk about things, we can't fix them.”