Tribal leaders and experts on mental health gathered in Helena Wednesday to work on ways to prevent suicide among Native American youth.

The two-day conference to teach best practices is the first step in The Native Youth Suicide Reduction Plan. More than 75 people from tribal governments, Urban Indian Health Centers, the Indian Health Service and the Department of Health and Human Services will spend two days at the Zero Suicide Academy, a national program to implement best practices.

“Some of you may come here carrying heavy hearts,” Jan Ulrich, a senior project manager with the Zero Suicide Institute, said.

The framework was tailored to fit the state’s specific needs. In Montana, Native youth are at the highest risk for suicide. The statewide suicide rate is 8 deaths per 100,000 for ages 11 to 24, while the rate among Native Americans is 43 per 100,000 deaths.

The conference is part of the first pillar of the Native Youth Suicide Reduction Plan released to state leaders in January, which calls for launching a statewide Zero Suicide Initiative. The other three pillars require the state to: support local community healing and transformation, empower Native youth and reinforce front line healers.

Zero Suicide framework encourages universal screenings, risk assessments, data collection and reporting and other evidence-based measures.

Gov. Steve Bullock addressed those who came to the conference and thanked them for doing difficult work.

“I’m tired of consoling and talking to my own kids about what we see around the state,” he said. “We can be tired or we can recommit and say we have to change things.”

Bullock said the conference shows Montanans are committed.

"We’re all here to make zero suicide a reality,” he said.

Most speakers were quick to acknowledge the challenging work, but asked attendees to have hope. Some said the academy is a unique opportunity to have solutions come from within the Native American community.

“We descend from people that were masters of not giving up,” Iris Pretty Paint, of Kaufman and Associates, said. “We’re excited at getting this pillar and going to the next.”

Montana has been in the top five states with the highest rates of suicide for the last 40 years.

The initiative geared toward Native youth is part of a multi-pronged effort to reduce suicide in the state. In 2017, the Legislature passed a bill providing DPHHS with $1 million to prevent suicide with $250,000 going to Native youth, $250,000 to schools, and $500,000 for veterans, Native Americans and other groups.

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