More Treatment Options Appear as County’s Suicide Rate Doubles National Average

Suicide in Montana and Flathead County has reached alarming new highs in recent years

By Justin Franz

 The morning of March 20, 2012 started like most days for Debi Strong. She got up, dropped her daughter off at school and came home to walk the dogs. Then, knowing no one would be home for the rest of the day, she wrote a brief note and took a handful of prescription narcotics.

Strong’s husband and daughter found her unconscious eight hours later and she was airlifted from her Bigfork home to Kalispell Regional Medical Center, where she recovered.

The experience prompted Strong to adopt a prominent role in the region’s battle against suicide and its renewed efforts to treat depression.

Suicide in Montana and Flathead County has reached alarming new highs in recent years. Between 1997 and 2011, 230 people took their own lives in Flathead County and in 2013 it was the sixth leading cause of death in the area. According to a Flathead County Community Health Assessment from 2013, for every 100,000 people here, 24.5 will take their own lives, a rate that is twice the national average. And for every completed suicide, there are about 25 attempted suicides. Nationally, there has been a 15 percent increase in suicide between 2000 and 2009 and in 2012, for the first time ever, suicide surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of injury-related death, according to the American Journal of Public Health.

Courtney Rudbach, the clinical supervisor at the Pathways Treatment Center at Kalispell Regional Medical Center, said there are a variety of reasons that have led to Flathead County’s high suicide rate, including more access to firearms and a large veteran population. Suicide among veterans is especially high and statistics show that 22 veterans die by suicide every day in the United States.

These numbing numbers have spurred a renewed focus on depression treatment here in the Flathead Valley. Recently, North Valley Hospital in Whitefish established a behavioral health program, led by newly hired psychiatrist J. Douglas Muir. North Valley is also planning on expanding the program later this year to Eureka, where patients will be able to meet with Muir online.

Pathways is also renewing its focus on depression treatment, and since 2012 has hosted a weekly support group in Kalispell led by Strong. She was instrumental in organizing the group and said it was something the community desperately needed.

“There are a million support groups in the valley, but there was nothing to talk about depression and that had to change,” Strong said. “I’m not a counselor or therapist. My experience with suicide comes from real life.”

Strong, who worked in law enforcement, had dealt with depression all her life until she had “run out of hope” in 2012. After she attempted suicide, she spent more than a week at KRMC and then spent nine weeks at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, Texas. While there she took classes and individual and group therapy sessions where she learned about the brain and how depression works. Then she was able to come up with coping methods to keep her from becoming depressed.

After spending the nine weeks in Texas, her outlook on life began to change.

However, upon her return to the Flathead, Strong was concerned about slipping into her old ways again. She approached Rudbach at Pathways about hosting group therapy sessions. Today, there is a core group of about a half-dozen people who attend the weekly sessions.

Strong leads the sessions and said people shouldn’t be afraid of talking about depression openly.

“I want to get rid of that stigma and that’s why I’m always willing to talk about it,” she said.

There are also efforts taking place on the national level to raise awareness about depression and suicide, especially among veterans. Montana’s U.S. Sen. John Walsh is spending his final months in Congress pushing the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. The amendment has garnered bipartisan support in the Senate and there is already a companion bill moving through the U.S. House of Representatives.

The bill would extend the number of years a combat veteran could use Veterans Affairs services, which Walsh said is especially important because it can take years for the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder to arise.

“This is one of the silent wounds of war,” Walsh said. “We lose 22 veterans a day to suicide in America. If we were losing that many soldiers in Afghanistan right now there would be an uproar.”

The issue is especially important to Walsh, who served as Adjutant General of the Montana Army National Guard and led troops in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. Just one month after coming home, one of Walsh’s soldiers committed suicide.

“We’d been so focused on getting the men and woman ready for deployment, but we completely overlooked what could happen to these soldiers when they return home,” Walsh said.

Walsh said he wants soldiers to know that it’s acceptable and encouraged to seek treatment for depression and that “it won’t be seen as weak.” The senator is hopeful his bill will pass in the coming months, but that even if it doesn’t become law he’s proud to have been able to help start a national conversation about the issue.

Rudbach said despite the startling statistics about suicide in Montana and in the Flathead, people can get help and get better.

“People pull out of depression. They pull out of suicidal thoughts. Recovery happens,” she said. “Treatment is hard, but it’s effective.”