Montana High School Students Report Heightened Rates of Suicidal Ideations, Suicide Attempts

Statewide survey also shows students self-reporting lower rates of alcohol, tobacco and drug use

By Andy Viano
The entrance to the Kalispell Public Schools office in downtown Kalispell on Sept. 27, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Montana Office of Public Instruction’s biennial survey of high school students in the state revealed that more than 23 percent have seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months, an 8 percent increase from 2011 and the highest rate in more than 10 years.

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) has been conducted every other year in Montana since 1991, and this year’s survey included a representative pool of more than 3,800 students in grades nine through 12. Students from 47 different public schools were included in the survey, which was conducted in February 2019.

The results are intended “to assist educators and health professionals,” and address high-risk behaviors in six categories: unintentional injuries and violence, tobacco use, alcohol and other drug use, sexual behaviors that contribute to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and unhealthy dietary behaviors and physical inactivity. The report published by the OPI includes comparative data from 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017.

“It’s important information; we’re glad to get it,” Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau said. “It doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story but it provides a lot of information that we need to be aware of and guides our decisions as far as levels of support and interventions that we need.”

In general, this year’s YRBS results showed that students are engaging in high-risk behaviors less frequently than they were in 2009. They are using less tobacco, consuming less alcohol, abusing drugs less often, wearing their seat belt more often, and are less sexually active. But the percentage of students who have considered or attempted suicide increased once again, to its highest rate this decade.

More than 36 percent of student respondents reported they felt “sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row,” compared to 25.2 percent in 2011 and 31 percent in 2017. When asked if they had seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months, 23.4 percent answered in the affirmative, up from 20.8 percent in 2017 and 15.2 percent in 2011. Similarly, 19.5 percent of students reported they “made a plan about how they would attempt suicide,” and 10 percent of students said they had attempted suicide in the last year, both 10-year highs.

“The statewide numbers are certainly concerning,” Flatau said. “With that said, I know what we have done, are doing, and will continue to do (in Kalispell), which is reassuring from my standpoint.”

“At the same time, it’s always the concern of any of us, either educator or parent, that we’re missing the cry for help in some way, shape or form, (that) we’re missing the subtle message, so we’re always on our toes in that regard,” he continued. “Never has our staff been more aware of this issue and the corresponding mental health issues of a kid in crisis than we are right now. But you can never do enough, so we continue to train and we continue to talk about it.”

Flatau said the district has made “significant progress” in the last few years when it comes to addressing mental health and suicide prevention, and now prints the district’s suicide protocols on each staff member’s ID card. He added that staff has been trained in “mental health first aid,” and the district will be launching a new page on its website (http://sd5.k12.mt.us) that is meant to assist students in crisis and their loved ones. The page includes referrals to online resources, the contact information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and phone numbers for administrators and counselors at all district schools.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling (800) 273-8255, and the National Crisis Text Line is available by texting 741-741. Both resources are free and confidential.

While the numbers regarding mental health are alarming, the YRBS also showed that most high-risk behaviors are trending down. Just 31 percent of students said they had ever smoked a cigarette, a drop of 19 percent from 2009, only 7.7 percent of students had smoked a cigarette in the past 30 days and just 1.2 percent said they smoked cigarettes daily, all 10-year lows. More students reported the use of electronic vapor products, however, with 58.3 percent of students saying they had done so at some point in their lifetime, and 30.2 percent say they are currently vaping.

The use of alcohol and drugs among high school students also continues to decline. Thirty-three percent of respondents said they had consumed alcohol in the previous 30 days, down almost 10 percent from 2009, and rates of cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and steroid use were all at 10-year lows. Marijuana consumption was relatively flat, with 40 percent of students reporting any lifetime marijuana use, compared to 42.2 percent in 2009. Marijuana usage was up from 2017, jumping 3 percent.

The rates of risky sexual behaviors remained fairly steady compared to 2017, although students report having less sex and with fewer total partners than they did 10 years ago. And while only 55 percent of students reported using condoms during their last sexual encounter compared to 67 percent in 2009, more respondents used intrauterine devices (IUDs) and other tools to prevent pregnancy (including birth control pills and birth control rings) than at any point in the last 10 years.

The full results of the survey are available on the Office of Public Instruction’s website at http://opi.mt.gov, under the Leadership tab.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

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