Youth suicide in Montana - KRTV News in Great Falls, Montana

Youth suicide in Montana

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Helena High School principal Steve Thennis Helena High School principal Steve Thennis
Katy Nicholls, a clinical social worker Katy Nicholls, a clinical social worker

According to Montana public health officials, in 2014-2015 the number of youth suicides between the ages of 11 and 17 was double the national rate for the same age group. 

Experts say there are a number of social factors associated with suicide and that approximately 90-percent of those who complete suicide suffer from mental illness.

Educational leaders point to the nature of kids and the nature of Montana as contributing factors.

“Teenagers are impulsive, and in Montana some of the elevated numbers in the state that we deal with because they have access to means, and namely firearms,” said Helena High School principal Steve Thennis.  “When a kid makes that decision, there’s no turning back.”

“We live in the Great White North.   It's cold and dark for a lot of the year,” said Katy Nicholls, a clinical social worker who serves as Coordinator of Student and Employee Assistance programs for Great Falls Public Schools.  “We’re isolated for the most part and we don’t have a lot of mental health services, we’re under-served.  So folks that are suffering aren’t able to the supports they need and we also have a cultural component of independence.”

Recently, Netflix premiered a popular series called “13 Reasons Why.”  The drama tells the story of why Hannah Baker decides to take her own life.  While the series examines a number of sensitive topics, a number of professionals, including Thennis, aren't sold.

"They're missing the main point which is the mental health component," said Thennis.  "It really takes the focus off the issue which is reducing the stigma of mental health, providing more resources for students to get mental health treatment and care and then being able to teach our kids resiliency."

Thennis is not a mental health professional, but in his 15 years in school administration, he has dealt with suicide more than most.  During that time, Helena High School has lost seven students to suicide.

Nicholls says on a professional level, she says the show's reflection of teen experiences makes it good for adults to watch, but she cautions parents of letting their adolescent children watch.

"It can be a dangerous show for them to watch,” said Nicholls.  “I really think it gets into that glamorizing and fantasizing about suicide and then the outcomes."

Schools in Helena and Great Falls offer comprehensive suicide prevention resources for teachers and students, including QPR which stands for Question, Persuade, Refer.

"We have that as first line intervention,” said Nicholls.  “What to look for, how to know, what's going on with our kids."

Helena sophomores go through QPR while freshmen take part in YAM or Youth Aware of Mental Health.  Outside health professionals run the program in P.E. classes.  Junior students use part of their U.S. History classes to learn SOS or signs of suicide.

Thennis said Helena High also participates in a number of activities to promote prevention during Suicide Prevention week, usually near the start of the school year.

Both Thennis and Nicholls feel prevention efforts are working.

"That happens everyday in our schools,” said Nicholls.  “That a student is concerned about another student.  They come to our school counselor, they are the front line, they're doing such incredible work to assess and really connect with our kids to get them the help they need."

"Our counselors, who I really deem as heroes, are in a position now that they never really signed up for and that is as a mental crisis therapist,” said Thennis.  “Some of our counselors are essentially on a 24-7 call-in basis."

There are student led initiatives aimed at making a difference including the Saving HHS facebook page.  Across town at Capital High, Senior Jaylee Priddy made and distributed 1,400 cards at the end of 2016 for fellow students with positive messages.

Each month, Thennis meets with a suicide prevention awareness group.

"We talk about programs.  For example, we rally kids to participate in the "Out of the Darkness Walk."

The group was also instrumental in getting Kevin Hines, a Golden Gate Bridge jump survivor, to speak to high school students in Helena recently.

Click here to visit the Helena High School website to see the response to the "13 Reasons Why" program.

If you are in crisis and want help, call the Montana Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime at 1-800-273-TALK or text “MT” to 741741


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