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Community unites to prevent suicide

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LAKE COUNTY — Despite continued efforts by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to combat the problem, officials say there is a great need for more resources to treat individuals considering suicide or battling other mental illness.

“It’s almost like this phantom problem,” said Roxana Colman-Herak, CSKT suicide prevention educator. “Like a pink elephant in the room. It’s there. It’s really big but I don’t think there was very much that was happening (prior to 2007).”

Since 2007, Colman-Herak and her husband have trained between 1,300 and 1,400 people about suicide prevention through the tribes’ ASIST program, a two-day intensive session meant to recognize the signs of fatal self-harm and prevent them. The tribes also support Question Persuade Response training that is a shorter, less comprehensive version of suicide prevention information.

 “The Salish and Kootenai Tribe is lucky,” State Suicide Prevention Coordinator Karl Rossten said. “They have some grant money to conduct prevention programs.”

Lake County has a suicide rate of 21.1 per 100,000 people, according to Montana Department of Health and Human Services. That rate is just above the state’s rate of 20.2 suicides per 100,000, but almost double the national rate of 11.05 people. Deer Lodge County has the highest rate of suicide in Montana, with 34.5 of the deaths per 100,000 people. Montana has led the nation in number of suicides for the past century, Rossten said. Access to firearms, an increased sense of isolation in the Rocky Mountains, prevalent alcohol abuse and other cultural and geographical factors are all thought to be contributing factors to the high rate.

“The biggest issue is stigma against mental illness,” Rossten said. “Suicide is a result of a mental illness and depression. We have to change the way we view mental health in our state. Montana has had one of the highest suicide rates for 100 years. A lot of people see it as a weakness they don’t want to admit.”

The conscious decision by communities to prevent suicide can make all the difference, according to Rosston. The initiative the tribes have taken to instill good behavior games and teach coping mechanisms put Lake County leaps and bounds ahead of most part of Montana, he said. The games, overseen by Colman-Herak, instill coping mechanisms in children.

“It has positive results 20 and 30 years later,” Rossten said. “It reduces the risk of suicide and substance abuse.”

Inevitably, prevention will not be enough to protect everyone, and providing adequate resources for those who need mental health services is a challenge across the state, Rossten said. There is only one state mental health hospital and most other facilities are consistently booked, sometimes with long wait-times that can be antagonizing or unhelpful for those who have an impulsive desire to end their lives.

Lake County Sheriff’s deputies see one or two cases each week that need mental health treatment, Undersheriff Dan Yonkin said.

“If someone is contemplating hurting themselves, they have two options,” Yonkin said. “They can go to jail or go to the hospital.”

Neither situation is ideal. The jail has a solitary room where the prisoner can detox, calm down and get seen by mental health officials.

“In some individuals, that doesn’t really help their problem,” Yonkin said. “In some cases that only compounds their problem.”

A trip to the emergency room can mean a long wait in the waiting room where a patient will receive a preliminary evaluation, but only if the person doesn’t walk out first.

“That wait can be problematic,” Yonkin said.

Yonkin hopes a proposed Polson mental health facility will be built because it would allow greater access to greater health services.

“It should be a good bridge — if it comes to fruition — between law enforcement and health professionals,” Yonkin said.

The potential for a new facility is tremendous, Rossten said.

As the community waits to see if the center will be built, individuals can train themselves through the tribe’s ASIST, QPR or other programs. The tribes also hand out free gun locks to help prevent suicide.

A presentation on suicide prevention called “Four Interactive Factors of Happiness,” presented by Jack Wright, will begin at 11 a.m. at the Tribal Health building on Thursday, Jan. 30.

For more information, contact Roxana Colman-Herak, GBG Program Manager-ASIST Master Trainer at (406) 675-2700, ext. 1361, or Jason HeavyRunner, COT Program Manager at (406) 675-2700, ext. 1340.

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