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Learning Through Loss

Following the deaths by suicide of eight teenagers in 16 months, prevention leaders, educators and mental health experts seek solutions in the Flathead Valley

By TRISTAN SCOTT and MICAH DREW
The Glacier High School soccer team at Legends Stadium on Sept. 16, 2021. Prior to the match, the players paid tribute to a teammate who died by suicide less than 10 days earlier. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On Thursday, Sept. 16, under the lights of Kalispell’s Legends Stadium, dozens of student athletes competing in the crosstown soccer match bowed their heads for a moment of silence. The Glacier High School boys stood side by side on the synthetic turf facing the crowd, their Wolfpack-white jerseys emblazoned with the players’ numbers, which ran in sequential order — 9, 10, 11 — until they didn’t.

One number, out of order at the end of the line, was embroidered on a navy jersey, animated only by the cool evening breeze.

The teenagers, as well as their fans and coaches, paid their silent, heartfelt tribute to a well-known teammate who died by suicide less than 10 days earlier, his life extinguished, his number retired.

Across the emerald soccer pitch, members of the Flathead High School girls squad wore pins and yellow ribbons honoring their own teammate who died by suicide just three months earlier, on the final day of last school year, a loss so abrupt and permanent that the warmth and freedom of summer break had done little to countervail the immensity of their grief. Instead, the new school year had barely gotten underway before the wounds were reopened by the loss of another peer.

And despite Glacier’s decisive sweep, there was nothing to celebrate two days later, when the community awoke to a slate-gray Sunday morning and learned that yet another Glacier High School student had taken their own life, the eighth death by suicide of a Flathead Valley teenager in 16 months, seven of them within the Kalispell Public Schools (KPS) system.

The tragic deaths mirror a national public health crisis that has been gaining urgency in Montana for more than three decades, during which time the state has consistently ranked in the top five in the nation for suicide rates, and is often positioned at No. 1. Between 2008-2019, the state’s youth suicide rate for ages 11-17 was pegged at 11 per 100,000, or more than double the national rate for the same age group, according to Karl Rosston, the state’s suicide prevention coordinator. And in Flathead County, which recorded a total of five youth suicides in the two-year period spanning 2018 and 2019, the recent spike in deaths by suicide marks an unprecedented and alarming high.

Indeed, the pattern of youth suicide that has emerged in the past 16 months in the Flathead Valley has intensified the community’s awareness, grief and fears surrounding the mental health of its most vulnerable (and seemingly invincible) members. It has elevated a discussion about suicide prevention and outreach, and raised pertinent questions about how to mitigate the mental health crises gripping our children. For educators and mental health experts attempting to focus the community-wide discussion on hopeful outcomes, such as the well-informed suite of resources in place to address the challenging issue, including strategies for prevention and postvention — a form of intervention that takes place after a suicide, largely in the form of supporting individuals and communities in their grief — each death is a painful and sobering reminder of the many factors beyond their control.

In an email on Sept. 10, which is designated World Suicide Prevention Day to raise global awareness during National Suicide Prevention month, Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill framed his message to families “with tremendous sadness and hope,” revealing that he’d struggled to find the appropriate words.

“Our hearts are broken for the families and friends of these students and for the staff that have known them. Our sincerest condolences, thoughts and prayers go out to these families. In addition to these students, we have experienced the loss of parents, colleagues, and friends to suicide who also have a connection to our schools. These losses weigh heavy on my heart,” Hill wrote. “Following a suicide, we are left with a complex mix of painful emotions and unanswered questions that are exceptionally difficult to comprehend. As our school community copes with these tragedies, please know that many resources are currently in place to offer counseling and support to all our students and staff. We encourage you to talk openly and honestly with your child about these situations. If you feel your child is struggling, please do not hesitate to reach out to a teacher, principal, or counselor so we can specifically support your student. KPS is committed to doing everything we possibly can to assist our students and staff through these difficult experiences.”

A week later, during an interview at his Kalispell office, Hill again emphasized that the district is committed to doing everything within its power, describing the wide range of resources already available, as well as the outsized challenges educators and school administrators face trying to broadcast those resources to a segment of the community whose lives are buffeted by complex and ungovernable circumstances that extend far beyond the classroom.

In short, Hill was asking for help.

“I’m watching our principals, our teachers, our mental health workers, our therapists, the people who are in our buildings at the ground level, and they are really doing the work on this,” Hill said. “From a school district perspective, it’s difficult to know what our message should be. Because I can tell our families and our public that we are doing everything we possibly can, but in reality it’s too heavy of a lift for us to do alone. We need everyone to step up and support our children’s mental health, and we need to support it from a greater social construct. There is more that we can do if we coalesce as a community. Public schools occupy one silo in this effort, but there is also our clergy and ministerial silo, our hospitals and private counseling silo, our emergency responders and law enforcement silo, and we all need to come together to address and find potential solutions. Because even with the best of everything in place, it’s not enough to sit back and think there is not going to be another suicide.”

“My biggest fear is that we are going to have another suicide in two weeks, or two months, or even in the next year,” Hill said, less than two days before the most recent student’s death. “We have to address this as a public health crisis.”

In response to the suicides, and in collaboration with the Nate Chute Foundation, Tamarack Grief Resource Center, local clergy, Logan Health, the Flathead City-County Health Department, local law enforcement, and the KPS Suicide Task Force, the Flathead Valley community is working to bolster support for its students and families specifically relating to suicide prevention. But the coalition is doing so in a manner that is both sensitive and sympathetic to the compressed timeline in which the deaths have occurred, with nearly everyone expressing concern that such acute exposure to suicide can result in an increase in suicide or suicidal behavior, or what’s known in clinical terms as “contagion.”

“Our response as a system is very poignant right now because we are speaking to a captive audience,” Kacy Howard, executive director of the Nate Chute Foundation (NCF) and a certified school suicide prevention specialist with the American Association of Suicidology, said. “Suicide is a very silo-ed field, and with this captive audience, I am really dedicated to collaboration, to putting it all together and making a plan and a vision for how we save lives going forward.”

Howard recalled her own consuming grief when, as a high school student growing up in Whitefish, she lost a close friend to suicide — Nate Chute, a Whitefish High School graduate and the namesake of NCF, whose death shook the community to its core. Her initial instinct was to channel her sadness into a yearbook spread dedicated to Chute, a public display she later recognized as counterproductive and potentially unhealthy.

“The thing that people need to remember about grief is there is no wrong way or right way to grieve,” Howard said. “But our manner of grieving can sometimes be very public, and when we are dealing with suicide that can sometimes cause more harm than good. How do we grieve without glorifying someone’s suicide? That is a hard thing for young adults to understand when they are consumed by grief.”

For Howard, who spoke to the Beacon prior to the most recent suicide, and who shared Hill’s fear that more deaths would occur in what suicide experts call a “point cluster,” the best response for anyone grieving right now is to become involved with suicide prevention efforts and engage in what she terms a “strength-based upstream model” in order to help someone who is currently struggling, and, eventually, to begin as a society to equip adolescents with healthy coping and resiliency tools at a younger age.

“The best thing we can do right now is double down on prevention and awareness,” Howard said. “I understand the pressing question of ‘why?’ and wanting an explanation, I truly do, but there is no explanation. The explanation died with that person. And certainly there is more that we can be doing in terms of better system-wide collaboration, but there are a lot of powerful things happening in our community right now. Kalispell Public Schools has a really strong suicide prevention plan. Flathead County law enforcement received a crisis diversion grant to fund a co-responder position. We have trained counselors and mental health professionals. We have resources on hand. And that’s the devastating part of suicide. Because despite our best intentions and efforts, sometimes we just can’t prevent it. I do believe that suicide is preventable, but I don’t think that every suicide is preventable. These kids who died are connected, engaged, involved — these are the indicators that are supposed to tell us our children are OK. And sometimes, they’re just not.”

Glacier High School’s head soccer coach Ryan Billiet wears a pin in remembrance of students who died by suicide at the Crosstown soccer match in Legends Stadium on Sept. 16, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In the two weeks since losing a player to suicide, Glacier soccer coach Ryan Billiet has been pushing the uncomfortable conversations to the forefront of his interactions with parents, coaches and players. Anytime a parent asks what they can do for the team, his response is straightforward: talk to your families, have the hard conversations and let your kids know they have resources and trained professionals available. 

“It’s the classic preventative care measure, with which, typically, we’re retroactive,” Billiet said. “We wait until it’s bad, and then we say, oh yeah, let’s address it. We have to do that now.”

“As coaches, we all go through so much coaching training and curriculum,” he continued. “Why can’t we be better equipped with suicide prevention and mental health?”

Billiet likened the nascent state of discussions surrounding mental health in the student sporting community to where it was a half-decade earlier with concussion awareness — a discussion that has since sprouted solutions. 

“There was this huge awareness campaign about concussion and it’s helping us have a better understanding on how to handle kids after a traumatic brain injury, what all the steps are we need to take, and how we can minimize the risks,” he said. “The kids, they’re going through the motions with concussion stuff now. They’ve got it down — boom, we’re done.”

“There was some additional awareness, we talked about it, it’s a real problem, and now people are paying attention,” he continued. “Why can’t this be the same? Why can’t we better equip coaches with this information and resources early on?”

Billiet thinks the conversations should occur early and often within the sporting community. He believes there should be regular check-ins about individuals’ mental health, rather than just mentioning resources in pre-season team meetings. 

“They’re difficult conversations to have, but I would rather have those conversations up front in order to save one life,” he said. “It would be better than where we’re at right now.”

For a rural, tight-knit community like the Flathead Valley, “where we’re at right now” is often easier to pinpoint during a time of crisis than where we’re going.

To help bring that path forward into perspective, the Nate Chute Foundation on Sept. 27 is hosting Dr. Scott Poland, a licensed psychologist and internationally recognized expert on school safety, youth suicide, self-injury, bullying, school crisis prevention and intervention, threat assessment, and parenting in challenging times. He has authored or co-authored five books, including writing the Crisis Action School Toolkit on Suicide (CAST-S) for the state of Montana. Drawing on his personal experience surviving his father’s suicide 40 years ago, Poland has dedicated his entire career to suicide prevention and education, speaking on the subject more than 2,000 times.

“Sadly, I have visited perhaps a dozen communities that have experienced a youth suicide cluster or a contagion situation,” Poland said in an interview from his home in Florida. “The suicide of a young person is like throwing a rock into a pond and the ripple effect is everywhere. The Kalispell schools have already done many good things to further prevention, but each death really plagues the entire community. Schools have a major role to play, certainly, but so do parents and so do students themselves. And social media has made it all more complicated and beyond anyone’s control.”

Glacier High School Activities Director Mark Dennehy said peer-to-peer outreach is one of the most potent forms of connection students have, noting that the well-known Glacier athlete who died by suicide two weeks ago publicly shared his own mental health struggles in the days before his death, while speaking to the incoming freshmen class of 400 students.

“For an athlete of that stature to share that story is powerful,” Dennehy said. “Peers can do a lot, a lot more than a parent giving an emotional talk or administrators talking about it.”

But in a high school district with 3,000 students, it’s not feasible to reach each one individually, and experts advise against subjecting large groups of adolescents to such raw descriptions of suicidal behavior and mental health crises, absent the ability to survey or monitor them all.

To that end, KPS is piloting a Student Assistance Program to facilitate peer-to-peer support groups supervised and facilitated by an adult, while Whitefish and Bigfork have launched similar programs.

Poland said those resources will go a long way toward educating and emboldening adolescents about how they can play a role in suicide prevention.

“I had a principal in Colorado reach out to me with a question about a school assembly where a grieving parent was allowed to talk about their very recent experience losing a child to suicide,” Poland said. “And the problem with sharing that kind of grief in an uncontrolled setting is that you can’t get a read of how each individual student is going to respond. There might be a lot of red flags waving that we can’t see. What we need to be asking ourselves is how can we take the angst and upset and grief of lots of kids and steer them toward the conversation of suicide prevention, so that every kid leaving a Montana high school knows what to look for and what to do to prevent suicide. It’s a skill they might need in college or at their first job or when dealing with an elderly neighbor. If we educate our high school students right now, then the next generation won’t be afraid of it. They won’t ignore it.”

Aubrey Howell, Flathead program manager at Tamarack Grief Resource Center, which offers a range of local support groups for those who have experienced a loss to suicide, said speaking candidly about surviving an attempted suicide, or grieving the suicide death of a loved one, can be an impactful part of the conversation as a community charts its path toward resiliency.

“We know it doesn’t cause suicide to talk about suicide, but we want to be careful when we are sharing stories,” Howell said, explaining that she lost her brother to suicide when she was in sixth grade. “I’ve become comfortable sharing that story because I have been on my own personal grief journey. I have reached out to others and done the work to process the experience.”

“We work with survivors of suicide loss all the time who have found a way to continue walking forward, and to integrate their loss and find meaning in it,” she continued. “It’s a way to show that there is hope out there. We are not alone, and increasing our efforts and opportunities to hold space for one another is one of the pillars of building a suicide-safe community.”

Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino, who also serves as a coroner and is a father to teenage children, said the suicide prevention and crisis intervention trainings that his staff and personnel undergo have helped broaden their awareness about mental health and suicide, particularly when responding to calls for crisis or other emergencies. It’s furnished his office with a degree of expertise that it hasn’t always been equipped with, Heino said. 

But the overwhelming sentiment of the past 16 months is one of despair, and Heino said every youth suicide has been a lightning bolt of grief. Right now, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to regain a sense of hopefulness.

“I am willing to do anything in my power to prevent another suicide, but I don’t know how. I want to tell these kids don’t do it, that whatever they’re struggling with is small potatoes compared to the realities of what comes at you later in life, that things will get better,” Heino said. “I do not want to have to put another one of our children in a body bag.”

If you are in crisis and want help, call the Montana Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 24/7, at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or text “MT” to 741 741.

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