Families, students left reeling after several deaths by suicide
PEOPLE gather at Glacier High School on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, for an evening of music, song, prayer and remembrance following the recent suicide deaths of Glacier and Flathead high school students. If you’re feeling suicidal, talk to someone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. (Hilary Matheson/Daily Inter Lake)
Daily Inter Lake | September 19, 2021 12:00 AM
Flathead County is facing a crisis among youth.
Seven local teens ages 15 to 19 have died by suicide since May 2020, tragedies that mirror a major public health issue nationwide.
There were associations between some of the teens through the high schools they attended and sports and activities they were involved in and friendships or relationships, according to Flathead County Sheriff and Coroner Brian Heino. Six of the teens attended Flathead and Glacier high schools.
“These were all good families — good kids,” Heino said.
On Monday night, students and community members gathered in front of Glacier High School to grieve the painful loss through music, song and prayer, concluding on a note of hope.
“Hope and pain can live in the same moment,” Liz Hashley, a worship leader at Fresh Life and 2013 Glacier graduate, said before the start of the event.
“I think to an extent, maybe all of us have walked through anxiety and depression. I have, through my walk, and it’s something we can talk about,” she said. “What keeps me here — what keeps me grounded and full of hope is Jesus, his goodness.”
Hashley said it’s important to find community and experience connectedness.
“It’s hard to do life alone,” Hashley said. “Even though I work for a church doesn’t mean I can’t, or you can’t struggle.”
In her experience, talking about suicide and mental health is a hard but vital conversation to have in the Flathead Valley.
“We all can’t do everything, but if everyone does one thing — checking on your neighbor, your friends — we can make a difference,” she said.
Attendees wanted to send the message to fellow classmates experiencing pain or distress to know they are loved and get support.
“You don’t have to go through it alone,” said Autumn Ploot, a Glacier student attending the gathering.
THE RECENT deaths by suicide are a three-year high in the valley, according to the Flathead City-County Health Department 2018-2020 Suicide Data Report. Nationwide, suicide is the second leading cause of death for children, adolescents and young adults ages 10 to 24.
“Suicidal behavior is complex, and there is no single cause,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH).
“So often with young people we often want to answer the question, ‘why?’ That answer died with that person,” said Kacy Howard, executive director of the Nate Chute Foundation and a certified school suicide prevention specialist through the American Association of Suicidology. “Most often there are a multitude of factors. With mental-health issues at play, there might be depression as a result of difficult life circumstances.”
“Oftentimes, with adolescents in particular, there can be precipitating factors,” she said. “It can be something like a bad grade, a fight with parents or friends, a breakup. Those are typical life experiences, but suicide is not a typical response,” Howard said.
This is why attributes referred to as “protective factors” have an important role in mitigating risk factors. Protective factors may be connections with family and others in a community; coping/problem-solving skills; resiliency and availability of physical- and mental-health services.
Risk factors in an individual’s personal or family history may increase the possibility of suicide, but may not be direct causes. According to the NIH, the main risk factors of suicide are: depression or other mental-health disorders; substance use disorder; chronic pain; history of suicide attempts; family history of mental disorder or substance use; exposure to family violence; presence of guns in the home; exposure to others' suicidal behavior, such as that of family members, peers or celebrities, whether directly or indirectly.
With this in mind, however, the NIH states: “Most people who have risk factors will not attempt suicide, and it is difficult to tell who will act on suicidal thoughts. Although risk factors for suicide are important to keep in mind, someone who is showing warning signs of suicide may be at higher risk for danger and need immediate attention.”
The American Association of Suicidology lists the warning signs of acute suicide risk as: threatening to hurt or kill him or herself, or talking of wanting to hurt or kill him/herself; looking for ways to kill him/herself by seeking access to firearms, available pills, or other means; talking or writing about death, dying or suicide, when these actions are out of the ordinary. The association states these signs are “not always communicated directly or outwardly.”
The Covid-19 pandemic also has taken a toll on mental health and suicide ideation.
“The coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic has been associated with mental-health challenges related to the morbidity and mortality caused by the disease and to mitigation activities, including the impact of physical distancing and stay-at-home orders,” according to an August 2020 Centers for Disease Control Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
SEEKING HELP is not a sign of weakness.
“I think we, as Montanans, can encourage over-independence, but what a gift it is to get or give support to someone else,” said Tina Barrett, executive director and co-founder of the nonprofit Tamarack Grief Resource Center and licensed clinical professional counselor.
Having the difficult conversation about suicide with children and adolescents is important, Howard and Barrett said.
When talking to young people, Barrett advised adults to use “simple, honest language,” and avoid euphemisms.
“If suicide is something adults are whispering about in the other room it can create a culture where suicide is something we don’t talk about,” Barrett said.
Sometimes it takes a friend, family member or colleague to ask the hard question of whether or not someone is suicidal.
“Of course you’re not going to ask your friends every day if they’re thinking about suicide, but being attuned enough to notice changes in behavior — remember we all struggle differently — and just checking in with them is important,” Howard said. “If you feel the need to ask that question, do it.”
The Nate Chute Foundation, a Whitefish-based nonprofit, offers evidence-based training and education to area schools and organizations to help identify behavior and build resiliency, according to www.natechutefoundation.org. The foundation was founded in 1999, after the suicide death of 18-year-old Nate Chute, a Whitefish High School graduate.
The foundation often presents to seventh- and eighth-graders around the valley, including Kalispell Public Schools.
“A lot of work we do right now is what do you do when someone is already struggling? How do we keep kids from getting to a point they may be thinking about ending their lives? It’s more resilience-building work, strength-based work. What’s good in your life? What support do you have? How do you utilize that?” Howard asked.
“We’re teaching kids the signs to look for, risk factors and help-seeking behavior if they’re concerned about their friends,” Howard said. “Help-seeking behavior is how we teach young people to reach out and acknowledge changes noticed in friends,” Howard said. “Share your care and get them connected to an adult, a teacher, coach, youth pastor, parent.”
Asking if a person is thinking about suicide tells an individual you’re ready to hear the hard answer. She said it also may provide relief to the person that their pain is noticed.
“It may help the person put a name to what they’re struggling with or realize how deep their despair has become,” Howard said.
Barrett said it shows a shared commitment to addressing this despair.
“As scary as it is for a parent, teacher, friend or family member to consider suicide — it’s also hopeful,” Barrett said. “It says something about the relationship that your friend, your student, your child is willing to share that with you,”
AFTER A suicide death, grief counselors such as Barrett are available to help people cope with loss.
Survivors of a suicide loss may have increased risk of suicide, which is where “postvention” activities aim to intervene. Tamarack Grief Resource Center, a Missoula-based nonprofit with offices in Kalispell and Browning, organizes community workshops, support groups and camps to reduce the risk by promoting discussion, healing and self-care.
“The more effectively we do that — we can increase coping strategies, and expand a support network, and help people integrate this profound loss into their lives in a way that’s not destructive and is constructive and allows them to find hope and meaning because grief isn’t something you get over,” Barrett said. “ It’s something you carry with you forever, so how do we help people live after loss; re-access quality of life and a sense of vitality?”
The center has several upcoming in-person and virtual opportunities to help adults and children process loss.
A virtual adult support group focused on the topic of “Grief after Suicide and Traumatic Loss,” will be held from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesdays, Sept. 21 through Oct. 26.
Children in first through fifth grades who are grieving the death of a family member, are invited to attend the “Dream Catcher: A Camp to Remember,” from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sept. 29. Children will learn how to honor grief, celebrate life and creative outlets for “big emotions.” A virtual camp will be held from 4 to 5 p.m. Oct. 27.
Tamarack will hold a virtual roundtable on “Interacting with Youth about Traumatic Events and Suicide,” from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Oct. 13. Practical tools and strategies will be shared to help people comfortable having conversations with teens about suicide and trauma.
Register at https://bit.ly/3tI4nmX. The center also offers counseling and peer-based grief support for teens.
For more information about Tamarack, call 261-0724 or visit https://www.tamarackgrc.org.
“After a death by suicide there is so, so much intense emotion and waves of guilt,” Barrett said. “As we learn to support one another we can become increasingly skilled at it, but sometimes where professional help is so important, is because friends and family can be uncomfortable with the stress — or they want to take away guilt, so they bypass it, ‘Oh no, it’s not your fault,’ even having someone else tell them that is not helpful,” she said. “Professionals can help people work through guilt, work with self-regulation strategies to find centeredness and calm.”
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If someone is in immediate danger
• Do not leave the person alone
• Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs, or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
• Call 911
• Take the person to an emergency room, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional
• Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself
• Looking for a way to kill oneself
• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden to others
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or feeling isolated
•Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Displaying extreme mood swings
Hope and healing after suicide
Experiencing intense emotions after someone takes his, her or their life is normal. Here are some suggestions provided by Tamarack Grief Resource Center.
• Create spaces to release emotion. It is OK to scream, sob, hit a pillow, or sing at the top of your lungs.
• Prep responses for potential guests. “Thank you. I just need some alone time now.” “Today is rough. Could you spend some time with me?”
• Take three deep breaths. Slowly.
• Surround yourself with people who give you strength. Allow yourself to take space from those who don’t.
• Consider what places, sounds, smells, or views bring you bits of comfort. Seek them out.
• Identify one thing you know you can accomplish. Do it.
• Drink a glass of water. Go for a short walk.
• Think of specific ways people can help. “I’d like the lawn mowed on Thursday.” “I’d appreciate fresh food for dinner.” “It would be great if you could walk the dog tomorrow.”
• Often people have a lot of questions. Prepare how you can respond. “My loved one died by suicide.” “My loved one lived
with depression for years.”
• If you feel overwhelmed by images, guilt, or hopelessness, it may help to seek the support of a trauma professional.