When talking about suicide, one of the first places the conversation goes is to the statistics: Montana has the third-highest rate of suicide in the country, with about 22 deaths per 100,000 residents; Flathead County had 230 suicides between 1997 and 2011.
However, these statistics, while sobering, only tell pieces of the story. The other parts are extremely human – suicide survivors, family members of suicide victims, and individuals who are stuck in a place where suicide may appear to be the only option left.
It’s this human element that makes suicide such a raw, painful subject, but the human element also offers hope. In Flathead County, there are those who hope to bring suicide out of the shadows of stigma and shame, and into the light of public conversation.
“Suicide is not the solution,” Diane Brittain said in an interview last week. “Getting help is the answer. Help is available. If you are concerned about someone in your life, take action.”
Brittain’s son, Matthew, took his own life on April 16, 2012. He was 21. In hindsight, Brittain now recognizes what could have been warning signs in her son’s behavior – some depression, thoughts about seeing a counselor, feeling that he didn’t have a future.
Matthew, a dedicated bodybuilder with a big heart and gentle nature, had hit some hard times after graduating high school, Brittain said. He was working construction in Sheridan, where the family lived after moving to Madison County after leaving Flathead County in 2003.
He’d had some trouble with the law, Brittain said, which was out of character for him. Getting work was tough, but he had just gotten a job with a local construction company two weeks before his death.
“The night before he died, he asked me to cut his hair. So I cut his hair,” Brittain said. “Then we watched a movie.”
The next morning, when she got up for work and didn’t see Matthew on the couch, Brittain went looking. She found his body in his truck on a back road he liked to drive.
It took some time for Brittain to come to terms with what happened to her son. At first there was anger and confusion, but now she knows Matthew must have been in considerable pain.
“My son didn’t do this to hurt me,” she said. “He was hurting.”
Brittain’s goal now that she’s moved back to the Flathead is to raise awareness about access to resources. She wants families and friends to talk to their loved ones, and wants those out there who may be hurting like her son to know there is help available.
Oct. 10 is National Depression Screening Day. Courtney Rudbach, clinical supervisor at Pathways Treatment Center in Kalispell, said her facility would be holding free screenings at Flathead Valley Community College that day.
Pathways also offers a free after-care support group for those who have attempted suicide or are considering it, every Thursday at 5 p.m.
“It’s a safe place to come and say, ‘I’m not feeling OK and I just need to talk about it,’” Rudbach said. “It’s support that’s in the form of recovery support.”
After-care for survivors of suicide attempts is one of Debi Strong’s passions. A well-known Bigfork artist and former member of law enforcement, Strong is now working to support attempt survivors.
Having survived a suicide attempt herself, Strong said coming back to Montana after receiving care in Texas about a year ago was daunting, because there was little in the way of support groups.
“I was petrified to come back. I needed to talk to people and to be able to stay vigilant,” she said.
Strong started working with Rudbach at Pathways to develop a depression support group, which will be starting up this fall. She also received a grant to follow a supportive curriculum for the group. Anyone interested in joining can call Rudbach at Pathways, at 756-3950.
It’s important to talk about suicide, Strong said. People who are considering it are stuck in their thought patterns, and need help pulling out and changing them. There are resources in this community, she said, and people need to be aware.
Brittain said she hopes by talking about her experience with Matthew, she can help start a conversation about suicide and bring it into the open.
“It’s happening everyday,” she said. “And we need to bring it out into the light and take action.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.