Montana State University

Suicide prevention experts call for early and universal mental health training to attack suicide, one of Montana's top killers

February 2, 2016 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

More than 300 students, faculty and mental health professionals are gathering at Montana State University at the first ever Montana Suicide Prevention Summit to brainstorm ways to prevent suicides on campuses in the state. Suicide is one of the top killers of Montana university students, and the state has the top suicide rate per capita in the country.

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His senior spring semester was a really tough one for Sam Lombard, a bright, creative Montana State University architecture major from Spokane. But, the week before finals was a good one, and things seemed to be on the upswing.

He’d made progress on his final project. He was making plans to attend a summer class in Denmark. He worked on a welding project – a lovely garden bench – that he enjoyed. He seemed to be moving beyond the devastating depression that had recurred during the previous months.

Yet, when an opportunity came – his in the form of a roommate who left town to attend a wedding, creating an absence of someone who kept tabs on Sam  – Lombard saw an opportunity to carry out the suicide he’d planned for months. And he took it, ending his life at the age of 22.

“What I know now, and didn’t realize then, was this was a classic pattern,” said Sam’s mother, Marny, about Sam’s suicide in April 2013. “He was feeling better. He stopped taking his meds and then committed suicide.”

Since the death of her only child, Lombard, has quit her job as an editor at Gonzaga University and become a national advocate for the prevention of suicide. She was one of two powerful opening keynote speakers at the Montana University System Suicide Prevention Summit that is being held Feb. 1 and 2 in MSU’s Strand Union Building. Organized by the Montana University System Suicide Prevention Task Force, the inaugural summit attracted more than 300 educators, students and mental health professionals from throughout the state, including every Montana college and university.

“We all did the best we could have knowing what we knew three years ago,” Lombard said. She made several trips from Spokane to Bozeman that spring, walking alongside her son in his path to suicide but not realizing the steps she might have taken to prevent it.

“I worked at a university and I didn’t want to be a helicopter parent,” Lombard said. She said she recalls walking across campus when Sam was still alive thinking that maybe she should find a good, independent psychologist that could help them both. But, she didn't, ultimately trusting her son to do the right thing to solve his illness.

“We all know better now,” Lombard said. “We can all do better now.”

Lombard also called for mental health and emotional education for all, beginning in grade school. She points out that a suicidal student is more likely to turn to a friend rather than a professor or even a stranger who is a mental health professional, and it would be helpful for young people to know what to do and who to call.

“We are here to learn how to better save lives,” Lombard said.

If Lombard told an emotional, powerful story about the personal impact of suicide, Karl Rosston’s talk was packed with statistics, which were also powerful. Rosston is the suicide prevention coordinator for the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.

Rosston said that Montana has the dubious distinction of having the worst suicide rate per capita of any state in the country. Montana’s rate of 24.5 suicides per 100,000 people is nearly twice the national average of 13.4. In fact, Rosston said that the Big Sky State has been among the worst states for suicide for more than a century.

There are several reasons why Montana “is in a perfect storm” for high rates. One is its location. The entire Rocky Mountain states, in fact nearly every state in the West, is at the top for suicide, he said. Rosston said all of the Rocky Mountain states share social isolation. In addition, Montanans have easy access to lethal means, particularly firearms. There is a high rate of alcohol consumption in the state. He said statistics from the last year indicates 48 percent of all suicides in Montana involved alcohol. A high suicide rate among Native Americans also is a contributing factor.

Geographical reasons for Montana’s high suicide rate include absence of sunlight in winter, resulting in a Vitamin D deficiency that can result in depression. Also, altitude seems to be a factor. There is an inordinate number of suicides above 2,500 ft. altitude.

“The cowboy mentality and stigma against mental illness in this state are also key,” Rosston said. He said this factor is particularly significant in men age 65 or older who don’t want to be a burden and feel that they are holding their loved ones back.

“It is different on the East Coast where it is cool to have a therapist, where one in five people have a therapist,” Rosston said. “That isn’t what happens here.”

Rosston said that Montana colleges and universities now average eight suicides a semester. About 80 percent of those are male. About one-third involve alcohol and two-thirds involve firearms, he said.

Rosston said that while the statistics are grim, there is good news, and that is that depression is treatable.

He made four recommendations that he thinks could help reduce Montana student suicide rates:  manadatory training for all residential hall advisers, a university screening for depression at student health centers, mandatory suicide prevention for all incoming freshmen, and a review of campus-wide firearm policies. He said that most of those that committed suicide with a firearm kept the gun they used in their car or truck.

Rosston said that help is available at the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK(8255), as are resources for those who fear that a friend or relative may be suicidal.

Other local resources include free counseling for MSU Students at the Student Health Center counseling center. The Help Center can be reached at 586-3333. Bozeman also offers the Hope House for those in emotional crisis. A crisis text line can be reached by texting 741741. A listing of resources can also be found on MSU’s  comprehensive suicide prevention website.

During the coming day, there will be break-out sessions to help students, faculty and university staff better understand needs of students struggling with depression, mental illness and suicidal inclinations.

Both Rosston and Lombard urged that teachers, staff and friends to connect with someone they feel may be considering suicide, and to reach out to mental health professionals.

“This IS an issue we can stop,” Rosston said.

Matt Caires (406) 994-2826,