Tuesday, June 18, 2024

We can LEARN to save lives

| November 5, 2023 12:00 AM

On the way to the airport — I go often — I pass the billboard “No more suicide.” Good intentions aside, and I couldn’t agree more, but I wonder how effective it is. 

How many people slow from 65 mph to note the phone number of the crisis line? It’s also not clear if the resource offered is available to everyone.

I remember my first realization of suicide and how close it could be. It was Sam Will — this came via the whispers at my high school in Helena. I didn’t know Sam well, but everyone liked him; he was gentle, shy. He was there. Then he wasn’t. 

According to federal mortality data, suicide in the U.S. hit an all-time high in 2022. In Montana, the state with the second-highest suicide rate in the country, it increased 42% from 2011 to 2021. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Montanans ages 10 to 44. Rural living is a risk factor.

My inquiry into what to do besides billboards brought me to the Whitefish Performing Arts Center earlier this fall, to learn about LEARN with a half-dozen others from Nate Chute Foundation’s Kacy Howard. It was the foundation’s first public training of the new curriculum developed at the University of Washington.

Howard reframed suicide as “not about wanting to die but about putting an end to overwhelming pain.” With that, we started in on the elements of the acronym that could help reverse suicide’s upward trend.

Look for signs: Negative personality and behavior shifts may be prompted by a painful event, loss or change.

Empathize and listen: Our ears help us feel with people; we must leave aside judgment and advice. Author Brené Brown sums it up brilliantly in her “On Empathy” online video. 

Ask directly: This is the hardest. Howard said it’s important to say the words: “Are you thinking about suicide?” or “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” (She cautioned against the word “commit” as it implies a criminalized act.) We all took a deep breath after she suggested, “Practice in the mirror. It catches in your throat.”

Reduce the danger: Howard said the goal is to put “time and distance between the person and the methods.” She said a suicidal person’s decision can be relatively impulsive and action typically occurs within 10 minutes of the decision. Bring on the gun locks, and resist buying medications such as ibuprofen in the big-box-store size.

Next steps: If the person says yes to the inquiry about wanting to kill themselves, Howard said, “take a deep breath and go down in the hole with them. Don’t shout from above.” Hugs and hearing someone out can help make the move out of crisis mode; after that it’s dialing 988 to connect with trained counselors or getting regular mental health help along with compassionate follow-ups.

“Suicide results from multiple complex factors,” Howard said. “The best tool we have is connection and relationships — a sense of belonging.”

The problem looms large, but small gestures may make the difference. We can reach out, make friends, invite someone to experience music, art or dance. It could save a life.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at mdavis@dailyinterlake.com.