BILLINGS — A diverse panel of six Montanans has been named to study the cause of the state’s suicide epidemic, which mental health professionals have deemed a public health crisis.
For the next three years, the panel of professionals, which includes a pastor, psychologist, psychiatrist, sheriff and licensed clinical social worker, will focus on the issue of suicide and make recommendations to the governor to help prevent more deaths.
The panel is the first Montana Suicide Review Team, which was created by House Bill 583 and signed into law earlier this year by Gov. Steve Bullock.
The panel will meet at least eight times a year, and each member will serve a three-year term.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services will produce a biennial suicide reduction plan and submit it to the Legislature. The plan must include specific activities to reduce the suicide rate; concrete targets for reducing the rate among various populations, including American Indians, veterans and youth; and measurable outcomes for all activities.
The law is scheduled to terminate June 30, 2016, and the team’s activities will be paid for with a $67,000 appropriation from the general fund in each year of the biennium.
For more than three decades, Montana’s suicide rate has ranked among the top five states in the nation and is nearly twice the national average.
During 2010, at least 227 Montanans killed themselves. In 2011, the number dipped slightly to 225. Last year, at least 226 Montanans took their lives. In a state with about 1 million people, on average about 15 Montanans attempt suicide every day. That is approximately 5,500 documented suicide attempts each year.
Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, sponsored the legislation, calling the suicide rate the state’s dirty little secret. He said it is shameful that the problem has persisted for so long and so little has been done to understand why it occurs.
“I sincerely hope that this team begins to unravel Montana’s fatal mystery,” Cook said.
Dr. Leonard Lantz, a Helena-based child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist who has been appointed to the Review Team, has said the team by itself is a first step toward a real resolution — an effective, coordinated effort to reduce the state’s suicide rate.
“We can lower the state’s suicide rate but it will happen slowly,” Lantz said. “This has been an issue we’re been dealing with for a very long time.”
Stephanie Iron Shooter of Billings, who was also named to the Review Team, said she is impressed with how open and receptive the Governor’s office is to the team’s input and ideas.
“We know what the problem is,” Iron Shooter said. “We’ve known it for 40 years. This is an opportunity to find solutions, real solutions.”
Matt Kuntz, executive director of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has long referred to the state’s suicide rate as a public health crisis. The panel will help Montana systematically study suicides to get a better understanding of its causes and potential interventions, he said. A similar review is already conducted for fetal, infant and child deaths.
This will allow the state to identify suicide patterns and target the most effective means of prevention, Kuntz said.