Anti-suicide Bill Moves Forward in Montana Legislature

Jonathan Windy Boy's legislation would award grants using existing money from special revenue accounts

By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN, Associated Press

HELENA — Alarmed by suicide rates persistently among the highest in the nation, Montana lawmakers moved closer Saturday to sending legislation to Gov. Steve Bullock authorizing $1 million to address a crisis that has long vexed public health officials, veterans groups, tribal leaders and other communities across the state.

The Senate’s overwhelming endorsement of a bill by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, a Democrat from Box Elder and Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, represents a partial victory for anti-suicide crusaders who over the years have demanded the state provide more resources to combat the problem.

But even with this step, others say the state needs to do more to address the underlying factors that have led to one of the highest rates of suicide in the country, a blemish that has persisted over the past four decades. The state’s rate is twice the national average.

A report released last year identified 555 known suicides in the state between Jan. 1, 2014 and March 1, 2016.

“This issue is happening in epidemic proportions. It’s been quite alarming, and the problems I heard were pretty intense,” Windy Boy said.

“There’s momentum behind this, and I hope we can keep going. I know $1 million is just a drop in the bucket.”

His proposal has already passed the House and is the only suicide-related legislation remaining in the current session. As other anti-suicide bills faltered because of resistance from some Republicans looking to contain the sprawl of government programs, Windy Boy’s bill became the lone vehicle to address suicides among Native Americans, military veterans and Montana youth.

“I’m happy something is happening, but we’ve had other bills that could have done more,” said Rep. Jessica Karjala, a Billings Democrat who had hoped to shine more attention on understanding the role of trauma, in childhood and among veterans, in the state’s spate of suicides.

Karjala said lawmakers needed greater resolve, politically and fiscally, to more seriously combat suicides.

“While we may be making some headway, we still have a terrible suicide problem,” she said.

Windy Boy’s legislation would award grants using existing money from special revenue accounts, including $500,000 from the state’s tobacco settlement trust fund. Other money would come from cigarette tax revenues.

The money would benefit schools, nonprofits and other community groups, as well as tribal organizations that work toward suicide prevention.

Part of the funding would also be used to put in motion a suicide reduction plan focused on Native youth, who kill themselves at a rate more than five times higher than other groups between the ages 11 and 24. “The challenges facing a statewide effort to reduce Native youth suicide in the state of Montana are real,” the report said.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.