By Mary Ann Dunwell 

“We need to talk about suicide,” teachers said choking back tears, or letting them flow, as they interviewed recently for Montana’s Teacher of the Year award. They shared with us on the selection committee that student suicides hurt their hearts and devastate schools, and we need to bring the problem out in the open to solve it. That’s what September’s National Suicide Prevention Month aims to do – create suicide prevention awareness and reduce stigma of mental illness. It’s a time for communities all over Montana and the country to give pause and pull together to stop suicide.

Montana’s suicide rate ranks first in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lots of people in Montana work hard to prevent suicide, many more suffer the never-ending emotional pain and scars left after a friend, loved one, co-worker or neighbor dies by suicide. We need to step it up and do more to stop this public health epidemic. 

A trauma-informed school culture that gives equal opportunity and honors diversity – indigenous, LGBTQI, ethnic, all diversity – helps make sure every student feels respected, included and valued for who they are. Some schools train students and faculty on QPR program (Question, Persuade, Refer), YAMHs (Youth Aware of Mental Health), SOS (Signs of Suicide), Heads Up, or other programs to recognize and understand the symptoms of depression, anxiety, or suicide ideation in someone, and how to talk about it to prevent suicide. Some elementary schools fold the PAX Good Behavior Game resiliency training into their day. All schools should. The Legislature needs to support these prevention programs that work. 

Please ask your lawmakers to legislate and fund prevention: allow mental health sick days, handle-with-care-communication from law enforcement to schools, student mental health screening, suicide prevention training for teachers, health clinicians, doctors, employers, youth and community leaders, Extreme Risk Protection laws, continuation of the Thrive online program and implementation of other crisis prevention and response apps. We need to reauthorize the Montana Suicide Mortality Review Team that the Legislature cavalierly sunset at the high-noon of suicides in Montana. We need to follow the 2016 recommendations of the Review Team that are published online.

I’d like to see a Zero Suicide Commission, a no-holds-barred, public-private partnership to tackle our suicide crisis. Include gun shops, sporting goods and all types of businesses, employers, unions, youth groups, faith communities, veterans’ organizations, service clubs, schools and colleges that might be willing to train, display prevention materials, or call someone if they suspect someone is suicidal. 

National Suicide Prevention Month gives us an opportunity to come together and talk about these things, so we can turn our fallen tears and broken hearts into stopping suicide in Montana. 

Mary Ann Dunwell is serving her third term as a state representative for Montana House District 84, Helena/East Helena and is running for a fourth term.

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