Montana is a state with a proud history of firsts.
We were the first state to elect a woman to Congress: our very own Jeannette Rankin. We were also the first state in the nation to enact sweeping anti-corruption legislation in the Copper King era, after wealthy business interests in our state used their influence to buy a Senate seat.
But in some measures, Montana’s first place status is not always worthy of celebration.
According to a 2018 study by the Center for Disease Control, Montana ranks first in the nation for death by suicide — and the epidemic is only growing. Our state faces a rate of youth death by suicide that is three times the national average. And on our Indian reservations, that suicide rate is even greater.
We are facing a public health crisis.
Montana, in many ways, is a perfect storm of circumstances that factors into our higher than average death by suicide rate. Some of those include the isolation of living in a rural place, easy access to firearms, and a “Cowboy up” mentality that discourages folks from reaching out when they need help — or from embracing someone who has reached out.
The more research that we conduct on this tragic public health crisis, the more we learn about how we can address this issue and save lives. Several evidence-based programs have made a real difference in the lives of students from the early grades all the way through high school. Younger students are taught to play good behavior “games” to build resiliency, and in middle and high school, students are taught how to talk to each other and identify when their friends may need help. They learn who to go to if a situation arises, and they are taught to do something if they see something.
But what we’ve already done is not enough. These programs are regularly under-funded, and more action is needed to address the severity, and the urgency, of Montana’s suicide crisis.
That’s why we introduced HB 186 and 187. This legislation would help give schools, teachers, and students the tools they need to learn strategies to seek help for themselves and others. The additional funding through HB 187’s grant program could make a huge difference for our rural schools, which are already strapped for cash, and HB 186 would take critical steps towards screening for depression and mental health struggles among our student body.
These bills are not magic potions, and they wouldn’t make a difference overnight. But we were deeply disappointed to see both these bills tabled recently. We need a comprehensive package to address suicide prevention, and we needed it yesterday.
For us, this is personal. We’ve both lost constituents to death by suicide, and we have countless more constituents who have loved ones who died by suicide.
It doesn’t matter who gets the credit. All that matters is that we get something done. The pain of losing a loved one to death by suicide is a pain shared by all of us — it doesn’t belong to any one legislator.
Montana communities are asking for these bills, and these programs could save lives. It’s time to show the leadership Montanans are desperately crying out for from their legislators.
We urge our colleagues to show a strong bipartisan commitment to suicide prevention and mental health care, especially in Montana’s schools. Our students are counting on us to set politics aside, join hands and tackle this issue together. We’re sitting at the table — come join us.
— Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell and Rep. Joel Krautter
Dunwell (D-HD 84) represents Helena/East Helena and Rep. Joel Krautter (R-HD 35) represents Sidney/Richland County in the 66th Session of the Montana State Legislature.