In an interview before Gov. Steve Bullock signed his suicide prevention bill Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy said that getting the law passed was a long and personal journey.
The Box Elder Democrat said his 14-year old granddaughter in Havre died by suicide in 2015. She had been reaching out for help, he said, but no one recognized the signs until it was too late.
“We’re ranked among the highest in suicide nationwide,” said Windy Boy. “Indian Country is ranked the highest in Montana. These types of demographics and statistics are unacceptable.
“This is the first step in reducing that,” he said, adding that he wants to thank the governor and the Legislature for their support in “making sure this was a priority in this session.”
House Bill 118 had bipartisan support in the Legislature, passing 44-6 in the Senate and 92-7 in the House.
And Tuesday afternoon, Bullock hailed the bill as a positive step.
“Whether it was days ago in the Salish Kootenai community or here in this community,” said Bullock, communities are facing “this issue and continue to face this issue.”
The bill won’t solve the problem, he said, adding that “all of us ought to be haunted about what’s happening in our state.”
“There’s not a community in the state that has not been substantially impacted by the losses of lives that happen way too soon.”
HB118 has what Windy Boy calls “four different moving parts” and $1 million in designated funding.
It also folds in elements of four other suicide prevention bills introduced this session.
“This is something long overdue,” said Windy Boy.
It provides $250,000 in funding to implement activities to reduce Native Youth suicides, guided by the 2017 Montana Native Youth Suicide Reduction Strategic Plan.
“Native youth are at the highest risk for suicide among all population groups within the State of Montana,” according to the report.
“Another $250,000 is for putting out grants for schools across the state," Windy Boy said, adding that 841 schools are eligible.
These two efforts are funded until the next legislative session, he said, because at that time “we may need to re-shift the focus ... to further enhance the program in two years.”
Another $500,000, he said, is “geared toward ongoing funding for ... any groups dealing with suicide across the state in general -- along with veteran organizations and Native veteran groups.”
Grant activities are to be “evidence-based,” or based on rigorous scientific peer-reviewed research or recommended by the Montana Suicide Review Team.
HB118 also defines the state’s suicide prevention officer’s duties to include coordinating all suicide prevention activities conducted by the Department of Public Health and Human Services and other state agencies, said Windy Boy, such as the universities and department of veterans affairs.
It tasks that officer to develop a biennial suicide reduction program for all ages, ethnic groups and occupations, and to direct a statewide suicide prevention program with “evidence-based” activities.
This could include a public awareness campaign aiming to normalize the need for Montanans to address mental health problems, said Windy Boy, and could include using social media and technology to get the word out.
“We tried to address everyone in the spectrum across the state,” he said, by encouraging more community-based responses.
“One of the most important things in the bill is the grants out to communities for evidence-based suicide prevention programs,” said Matt Kuntz, National Alliance on Mental Illness Montana executive director. “It’s critically important for communities to do projects they’re excited about.”
“The strength of this bill is there are grants that are going out to communities for practices that have been proven to work,” Kuntz said. “It’s a great mix of allowing communities to be innovative while addressing their needs while still requiring a basic standard of research base.”
It both provides incentives, yet sets a clear bar and expectation, he said, “so the money goes to really make a difference.”
Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, who had part of her suicide prevention bill, HB265, folded into HB118, said “all in all it’s a good bill.”
“It helps the tribes, it helps vets,” and it also provides grants to schools for suicide prevention, which was the heart of her bill.
HB118 is funded by tobacco settlement proceeds in the state's special revenue account and the tobacco tax.