Healthy Students: preventing teen suicide in Montana

Montana Living Montana Living

Group aims to fight student suicide rates

By Carol Schmidt

His senior spring semester was a really tough one for Sam Lombard, a bright, creative Montana State University architecture major from Spokane.

But, the week before finals was a good one, and things seemed to be on the upswing. He’d made progress on his final project. He was making plans to attend a summer class in Denmark. He worked on a welding project – a lovely garden bench – that he enjoyed. He seemed to be moving beyond the devastating depression that had recurred during the previous months. Yet, when an opportunity came – his in the form of a roommate who left town to attend a wedding – Lombard saw an opportunity to carry out the suicide he’d planned for months.

And he took it. In his garage, with his beloved truck, he ended his life at the age of 22. “What I know now, and didn’t realize then, was this was a classic pattern,” said Sam’s mother, Marny, about Sam’s suicide in April 2013. “He was feeling better. He stopped taking his meds and then committed suicide.” Since the death of her only child, Lombard, has quit her job at Gonzaga University and become a national advocate for the prevention of suicide. “We all did the best we could have knowing what we knew three years ago,” Lombard said. She made several trips from Spokane to Bozeman that spring, walking alongside her son in his path but not realizing the steps she might have taken to prevent it. “I worked at a university and I didn’t want to be a helicopter parent,” Lombard said.

She said she recalls walking across campus when Sam was still alive thinking that maybe she should find a good, independent psychologist that could help them both. But, she didn't, ultimately trusting her son to do the right thing to solve his illness. “We all know better now,” Lombard said. “We can all do better now.” Lombard also called for mental health and emotional education for all, beginning in grade school. She points out that a suicidal student is more likely to turn to a friend rather than a professor or even a stranger who is a mental health professional, and it would be helpful for young people to know what to do and whom to call.

Karl Royston is the suicide prevention coordinator for the Montana Department of Health and Human Services. Rosston said that Montana has the worst suicide rate per capita of any state in the country. Montana’s rate of 24.5 suicides per 100,000 people is nearly twice the national average of 13.4. In fact, Rosston said that Montana has been among the worst states for suicide for more than a century.

There are several reasons why Montana has high suicide rates. One is its location. The entire Rocky Mountain states, and in fact nearly every state in the West, are at the top for suicide. Rosston said all of the Rocky Mountain states share social isolation. In addition, Montanans have easy access to firearms. There is a high rate of alcohol consumption in the state. Rosston said statistics from the last year indicates 48 percent of all suicides in Montana involved alcohol.

A high suicide rate among Native Americans also is a contributing factor. Geographical reasons for Montana’s high suicide rate include absence of sunlight in winter, resulting in a vitamin D deficiency that can result in depression. Also, altitude seems to be a factor. There is an inordinate number of suicides above 2,500 feet in altitude. The rugged individual mentality and stigma against mental illness in this state are also key, Rosston said. He said this is particularly significant in men age 65 or older who don’t want to be a burden and feel that they are holding their loved ones back.

“It is different on the East Coast where it is cool to have a therapist, where one in five people has a therapist,” Rosston said. “That isn’t what happens here.” Rosston said Montana colleges and universities now average eight suicides a semester. About 80 percent of those are male. About one-third involve alcohol and two-thirds involve firearms, he said. Rosston said that while the statistics are grim, there is good news, and that is that depression is treatable. He has four recommendations that he thinks could help reduce Montana student suicide rates: mandatory training for all residential hall advisers, a university screening for depression at student health centers, mandatory suicide prevention for all incoming freshmen, and a review of campus-wide firearm policies. He said that most of those that committed suicide with a firearm kept the gun they used in their car or truck.

Rosston and Lombard urge that teachers, staff and friends to connect with someone they feel may be considering suicide, and to reach out to mental health professionals. “This is an issue we can stop,” Rosston said.

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