Editor's note: The following is the second of a three-part series exploring the issue of suicide in Montana. It is hoped that this series will spur those in need of help to seek that help.
Karl Rosston accepted the challenge to fight suicide in Montana three years ago when he became the state's first suicide prevention coordinator.
But his grudge against suicide occurred many years earlier.
The Butte native can recall the date his older sister took her own life as fast as his own birthday: July 7, 1987. He was 20 years old, had just finished school at Montana Tech and was about to transfer to University of Montana.
The guilt he and his family suffered after her suicide was immense. Rosston's father was a prominent Butte physician; Rosston was studying psychology at the time.
"I kept thinking ‘I should have seen the signs, I should have noticed her crying out for help,'" Rosston said.
Twenty years later Rosston is still looking for the warning signs. He now sees these warning signs in the state of Montana as clear as the snow-capped See SUICIDE, Page A5 mountains on a spring morning. The suicide rate is alarming in a state that is crying out for help, but refuses to seek it.
"Suicide is such a taboo issue that people don't want talk about it," Rosston said.
However, with suicide being the second leading cause of death for Montanans between 10 and 34 years old, Rosston said it's time to address this subject in a responsible and professional manner.
HIGH SUICIDE STATE
With its landscapes of breathtaking mountain ranges, crystalline trout streams under a brilliant canopy of sparkling stars, Montana can be a virtual paradise.
But even the Treasure State has a darker side.
For the past three decades, Montana has ranked within the top five for having a high suicide rate. Extreme isolation, an abundance of firearms and alcohol mixed with rugged frontiersman bravado contribute to this disturbing figure.
In 2005, Montana had the highest suicide rate in the nation.
The numbers are shocking, according to Rosston.
Despite these dismal figures, Montanans have historically never been good at asking for help. Rosston's office wasn't even created until three years ago.
The rate of suicide in the U.S. is 11.2 per 100,000 people, according to the most recent statistics by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention taken in 2006. Montana ranked the second highest in 2006 – just behind Wyoming – with 20 suicides per 100,000 people. There were 189 reported suicides statewide that year, according to the CDC.
"Montana consistently has 180 to 200 suicide deaths each year," Rosston said.
Butte-Silver Bow averages 11 a year.
Because Montana has a population of less than one million, Rosston noted that the suicide rate per capita is extremely high.
Rosston said the latest suicide figures from 2008 show Montana is still in trouble. There were 202 reported suicides in Montana in 2008. Of those, 160 suicides were done by males and 42 by females. The leading age group for suicides that year was between 25 and 34 years old with 42.
The figures are a cry for help, but Montanans aren't the kind of people inclined to ask for it, according Rosston.
He calls it the "cowboy mentality." Historically, the people of Montana are endowed with a pioneering spirit that has helped them to survive and prosper in an often inhospitable land. But it's that same independent drive that prevents those suffering with depression and thoughts of suicide from seeking help.
Rosston says this attitude is common in Montana and other Western states. While people living in Eastern states experience high stress – congested cities, high crime and high cost of living – the suicide rates are much lower than Montana. Rosston said people in that part of the country are more likely to seek help on mental health issues.
"It's cool to have a therapist back East. Everyone has a therapist," Rosston said.
On that list, the bottom five states – whose suicide rates were far below the national average – includes Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey.
Washington, D.C., actually had the lowest suicide rate at 5.1 per 100,000 people, the CDC reported.
While the Eastern states have the lowest suicide rates, the Rocky Mountain States consistently rank in the top 10 for highest suicide rates each year.
Along with Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado rank highest on that list.
The CDC reports that 66 percent of the suicides in Montana in 2006 involved a firearm. The average nationally is about 50 percent for firearms used in completed suicides.
Rosston said the Mountain states all share similar qualities that make them ripe for high suicide rates. These states are often socially isolated, have a lack of public services to help with depression and thoughts of suicide and there is often easy access to firearms.
Statistics in Montana show that more than 80 percent of the suicides are done by men. It's this tough-guy attitude that makes men in Montana unable to admit they need help, Rosston said.
"If you're depressed, you must be weak and a burden on everybody," he said. "We take pride in our independence and our ability to take care of our families, but he can't ask someone else for help."
A LOCAL PROBLEM
Suicide rates are high from Deer Lodge to Butte on down to Dillon. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services recorded suicide by counties from 2000 to 2007 and many counties west of the Continental Divide showed high suicide rates.
Anaconda-Deer Lodge, Powell, Butte-Silver Bow and Beaverhead counties had rates that were "in the red," indicating that their rates were above the 80th percentile nationally, according to the state's human services.
Butte Police Capt. George Skuletich said suicide calls, including those that are threatening suicide, are difficult situations for police.
"You have to worry about the safety of the officer and you're trying to save the person's life threatening suicide," Skuletich said.
Though police didn't have specific figures on the amount of suicide calls received in 2009, Skuletich said these calls seem disturbingly frequent.
In Butte last year, there was one suicide at in the jail, and two suicides that were done in public during the day.
Skuletich said from his experience with suicide calls most people leave a note. The reasons people choose to end their lives vary from financial to personal problems, he said. Skuletich says alcohol and drug abuse, along with the availability of a firearm, seem to be common factors in suicide cases he's worked.
He believes some of these decisions are hastily made, with the victim being highly intoxicated and having a gun nearby. It's a moment of opportunity that people use to permanently end a temporary crisis.
— Reporter John Grant Emeigh may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Where to go for help
The following are suggested suicide prevention resources in southwest Montana:
- Montana State Wide Suicide Hotline: (800) 273-TALK (8255)
- Gilder House Crisis Line in Butte: 723-7995
- District XI Human Resource Council in Missoula: 728-3710
- Montana Suicide Prevention Coordinator Karl Rosston in Helena: 444-3349
- Anaconda Suicide Prevention meetings, call Melanie Trost: 563-4446
- Online: www.suicidology.org