HELENA – Hundreds of physicians, nurses, advocates and other interested Montanans filled the ballroom at the Helena Civic Center on Friday. They were taking part in the seventh annual Montana Conference on Suicide Prevention.
Dr. Len Lantz, a Helena psychiatrist, chaired the conference. He noted that Montana’s suicide rate is about double the national average.
“One of the reasons behind doing this conference is to let people know that we do have a high suicide rate, and yet there is help, and there is hope,” he said.
Each year, the conference has focused on specific aspects of the issue. This year, speakers highlighted efforts to reach men and veterans.
Juliana Hallows, suicide prevention coordinator for the Montana VA Health Care System, said the number of people referred to them through the national Veterans Crisis Line service increased from 245 in fiscal year 2014 to 482 in fiscal year 2018.
She reported there has not been a statistically significant growth in the number of veterans who die by suicide over the past few years – and that number actually went down slightly last year.
Hallows said partnerships are crucial in addressing the issue of suicide.
“For me, it takes a community to save a neighbor,” she said. “I hope today that we can learn about what it means to be a community, to look to our family members, our children and our veterans.”
Lewis and Clark County suicide prevention coordinator Jess Hegstrom talked about the county’s “Man Therapy” program. The grant-funded program uses humor to break down the stigma around mental health issues for men, while encouraging them to make community connections through social activities.
Hegstrom said 480 people have completed a mental health screening on mantherapy.org, and 50 were connected directly to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline through the site.
“There is the potential that some lives were saved here,” she said.
The county is now considering whether to extend the Man Therapy program – and possibly expand it to other counties.
The keynote speaker at Friday’s conference was Wendy Lakso, a leader in the national VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. She told MTN she had been impressed by suicide prevention efforts in Montana.
“We are excited about everything Montana is doing,” she said. “We’re going to be watching them very closely.”
The conference concluded with training in a form of therapy called dialectical behavior therapy. It focuses on reducing suicide risk by teaching coping skills and encouraging self-acceptance.
Lantz said about 550 people registered to take part in the conference. He said the event has grown each year.
“Every year we have more and more community partners who are wanting to join us, to say, ‘What can we do to make a difference for preventing suicide in our community?’” Lantz said. “That’s one of the things that I find so encouraging, is that so many individuals, organizations, professionals, businesses or regular Montana citizens are wanting to come together to make this difference.”
The Montana Conference on Suicide Prevention has been hosted by three major supporting organizations: the Big Sky Regional Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, NAMI Montana and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Montana Chapter. Next year, AFSP Montana will be the lead host of the conference, which is set for July 2020 in Butte.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255. You can reach the Veterans Crisis Line by calling the same number and pressing 1. More suicide prevention resources in the Helena area can be found here.
-Jonathon Ambarian reporting for MTN News