News & Features

Montana Grapples with Highest Suicide Rate in Nation

Recent study shows number of suicides in state has increased by nearly 40 percent from 1999 to 2016

Montana has the highest suicide rate in the country, and it’s been rising at a faster pace than the national average.

While suicide rates increased 25 percent nationwide between 1999 and 2016, Montana experienced a 38 percent increase in deaths by suicide in the same period, according to a recent report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

From 2014 to 2016, the state experienced 29.2 suicides per 100,000 people. The national rate was 15.4 per 100,000 people over the same two-year period.

According to a report released by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services in November 2016, suicide is the leading cause of preventable death for children ages 10-14 in the state.

According to the CDC, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death for Americans in 2016.

The study showed that every state, except for Nevada — whose rate decreased by 1 percent, but still remained high at approximately 22 suicides per 100,000 people — has experienced an increase in suicide rates since the turn of the century.

Matt Kuntz, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Montana, characterized the recent statistics as “a reminder” of the work that NAMI strives to perform.

“They suggest that we need to double down on what we’re doing and see what we can do to help more Montanans,” he said.

Kuntz partially attributed the state’s perennially high rates to the unique makeup of its residents, noting that the population includes sub-groups such as Native Americans, military veterans and gun owners, who are at higher risk for death by suicide.

He also highlighted the importance of ongoing mental health initiatives, including the Youth Aware of Mental Health program and the Thrive-Montana program, which received a combined total of more than $370,000 in state funding earlier this year.

The Youth Aware of Mental Health program run by Montana State University’s Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery provides mental health awareness and resiliency training in high schools across the state.

Thrive-Montana, which began as a pilot program in 2017, aims to alleviate depression and depressive symptoms among state residents through the viewing of select online videos.

According to Mark Schure, an assistant professor in Community Health at MSU and Thrive’s project leader, the program, which was adapted according to feedback from more than 450 study participants, will soon be available for use by up to 1,000 state residents with at least moderate symptoms.

Schure said data from the original study has demonstrated “a meaningful impact” among users.

Characterizing Thrive-Montana as “one additional tool” in the mental health system, Schure emphasized his team’s willingness to visit communities across the state to teach them about available resources, noting that rural communities in particular face “enormous barriers to getting the help they need.”

Even as the Montana Legislature has increased some efforts to fund mental health programs, including the allocation of $1 million for suicide prevention by House Bill 118 last April, significant state budget cuts have affected various statewide sectors, including mental health services.

“Montana already has the highest suicide rates and we’re getting budget cuts on top of it for mental health systems,” Kuntz said. “We’re really concerned about the people who need our care and won’t be able to get it.”

Go to www.dphhs.mt.gov/suicideprevention/suicideresources for more information on available resources. If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the Montana Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.