The Montana State Capitol

Wednesday marked the end of the 2019 Montana Legislature’s opening trimester, leaving state lawmakers 60 work days to find solutions to the state’s imposing mental health issues.

Montana had the highest age-adjusted suicide mortality rate in the nation in 2016 and 2017, according to CDC data. The state’s 2017 rate of 28.9 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people more than doubled the national rate of 14.0.

Suicide figures for Montana youth are equally grim. According to a 2018 report from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, the state’s youth suicide rate was nearly triple the national average from 2012 to 2016.

A year before the DPHHS report, the state Office of Public Instruction’s Youth Behavior Risk Survey found that 9.5 percent of Montana high school students surveyed had tried to kill themselves in the previous 12 months; for Native American students, that figure was 18.3 percent.

Thus far this session, the issue has held considerable attention from Montana House Democrats.

House Bill 186 from Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, proposed a pilot grant program for mental health screening in Montana schools to deal with the state’s “intolerably high” youth suicide rate. The bill received unanimous support last month from the House Human Services Committee and tallied 13 co-sponsors, including Sidney Republican Rep. Joel Krautter.

The latest version of HB 186 called for $1 million in state general funding to keep the program afloat in fiscal 2020 and 2021. It passed 56-44 from the House floor but was tabled Feb. 11 by the House Appropriations Committee.

“The discussion during that time, when they tabled it, was that we’re going to just keep it and see what other suicide prevention measures come forward. So we want to make sure we fund the one that we want,” Dunwell said. “I am an eternal optimist, so I am not giving up hope.”

Dunwell presented House Bill 187 the same day as HB 186. HB 187, which was tabled in its first committee, outlined $1.6 million in general funding for grants to youth suicide prevention programs.

Though Dunwell’s bills remain tabled, House Democrats have another pair of bills on the horizon.

House Bill 398, carried by Rep. Gordon Pierson, D-Deer Lodge, requests the state Board of Public Education include youth suicide awareness and prevention training as a prerequisite to teacher certification. 

Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, originally requested the bill.

“Working in the emergency room in Anaconda, we see kids come in everywhere from the ages of 3 up to 18. They’re having suicidal ideation, problems at home, etc., etc.,” Pierson, a registered nurse, told the House Education Committee on Feb. 8. “So I kind of came up with the thought this session of why don’t we make a suggestion to try to head it off before these teachers even hit the classroom?”

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HB 398 specifically calls for the Board to request eight hours of training, but Pierson told the committee an amendment is on the way to strike that suggestion so that training might be incorporated into existing college courses.

The committee had not taken action on the bill as of Friday. Pierson said he believes the bill’s chances are good behind support from the Montana Federation of Public Employees and the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“I don’t see a problem with it right now, but, you know, you never know in this place,” Pierson said.

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A fourth bill from Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, would appropriate $500,000 in special state revenue to the state DPHHS for grants to “school based” and “youth focused” suicide prevention programs.

House Bill 453, referred Tuesday to the House Human Services Committee, does not yet have a hearing date.

Senate bills

Mental health has received attention in the Legislature’s upper house, as well.

Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, carries Senate Bill 30, which was requested by the State-Tribal Relations Committee and passed the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee with an amendment on Feb. 4. The bill would qualify behavioral health peer support services as medical assistance under the state Medicaid program.

Gross’s bill was amended to cover only peer support services for patients above age 18 before receiving the committee’s blessing. As amended, the bill would cost the state general fund $6.8 million through fiscal 2023, nearly $5 million less than the original draft.

The tabled Senate Bill 106 from Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, would create a state certification for “prescribing psychologists.” With passage, clinical psychologists certified by the state would be permitted to prescribe medications to their patients.

The Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee tabled Small’s bill Friday.

If you or a loved one is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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