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School staff in Libby get suicide prevention training

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | October 19, 2021 7:00 AM

Following a series of teen suicides in the Flathead Valley, Libby Public Schools staff underwent training designed to help them identify at-risk individuals.

Organizers of the two-hour Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) course say their training can help anyone recognize and react to signs of suicidal intent. Pointing to Montana’s history of high suicide rates and the recent suicide cluster in Flathead County, Libby Superintendent Ron Goodman stressed the importance of recruiting district employees to keep tabs on student mental health.

“The big takeaway of that training in my mind … is asking someone ‘Are you hurting yourself’ has a serious decrease in the likelihood that they carry it out,” said Goodman during an Oct. 5 board meeting.

True to its name, the QPR training program encourages participants to question anyone exhibiting signs of suicidal intent if they plan to take their life. If a person seems to be at risk of committing suicide, QPR recommends persuading them to get help and referring them to a professional counselor.

By taking the course, Goodman said he had learned that living in Montana could put a person at higher risk of suicide. Factors including high elevation, lack of vitamin D, low population density and access to firearms can contribute to increased rates of suicide, according to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS).

For the past 30 years, Montana has ranked among the top five states nationwide for suicide rates among all age groups, according to a statement by Karl Rosston, suicide prevention coordinator for DPHHS. Among Montana youth aged 11 to 17, the suicide rate was 11 per 100,000 from 2008 to 2019 or more than double the national rate for the same age group.

In addition to providing the training to staff, some nearby schools have offered QPR courses to students. Ruth Vanworth-Rogers, principal of the Libby Middle High School, said 300 Columbia Falls students had gone through the course.

“They’re looking at training their entire high school over the next couple months,” she said during an Oct. 12 board meeting.

Vanworth-Rogers said it could be worth expanding the training in Libby since students contemplating suicide tend to bring their thoughts to other students before going to adults. She noted, however, that Columbia Falls has seen more recent suicides than Libby.

“I have to think through that a little more,” she told board members.

High school students have already taken the initiative by starting a campaign to promote suicide awareness. Vanworth-Rogers said students had branded their outreach program “We are Montana.” Organizers plan to send posters featuring an outline of the state filled with Libby student signatures to schools the Loggers face off against on playing fields.

“They came up with it all on their own,” said Vanworth-Rogers. “It will go to everyone that they are playing from the Flathead Valley and could be anyplace just to say, ‘We’re all in here together.’”

The recent Flathead County suicide cluster, in which eight teenagers took their lives in 16 months, sparked conversations about how to address the mounting public health issue. In late September, a panel of mental health professionals, educators and law enforcement officials converged at a town hall meeting in Kalispell.

Experts urged locals to talk about suicide more openly and engage in prevention training, according to the Daily Inter Lake.

Lincoln County had the fourth-highest age-adjusted suicide rate in the state at 34.2 victims per 100,0000 residents, according to numbers compiled from 2009 to 2018 by DPHHS. At least one Libby High School student committed suicide in the past year.

Anyone who feels suicidal can receive help from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the TrevorLifeline for LGBTQ+ individuals at 1-866-488-7386, or Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.

You can also text “start” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741, the Trevor Lifeline at 678-678 or the Veterans Crisis Line at 838-255. Web chats are available at crisischat.org, www.thetrevorproject.org or www.veteranscrisisline.net.