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WOLF POINT, Mont. — Mourners in this small town in northeast Montana, where a strip of appliance shops and bars are dwarfed by vast ranches, packed into a church this month to pray for Michael Lee.
A week earlier, Michael, a 13-year-old who dreamed of playing for the NFL, had killed himself in his family’s red clapboard home. At the funeral on Aug. 3, a row of Michael’s middle-school football teammates sat behind his relatives and friends, wearing maroon jerseys and white armbands with “R.I.P.” handwritten on them. A handful of strangers were there, too; the funeral announcement said anyone affected by suicide was welcome.
That seems to include just about everybody in the state these days.
The church was silent as Colleen Timmins-Lee, Michael’s stepmother and a state trooper, rose to speak, trembling.
“If you or someone you know that you even think might be going through this, then please, please get them the help they need,” she said through tears. “Please, please just reach out and just tell one person and try to prevent another tragedy like this.”
For those who sat in the pews wiping their eyes, or who stood by the entrance of the church, where a table was covered in pamphlets on suicide prevention, the message was both urgent and familiar. Montana has the highest suicide rate of any state in the country, and while people here don’t often speak openly about sadness or loneliness, many have firsthand experience with loss.
That already included Michael’s family. Just over two years ago, his mother, Kimberley Evans, also died of suicide.
Afterward, Michael struggled. He saw counselors at a children’s mental health clinic in rural Wolf Point, but after it burned down last year, the closest available counselor was 50 miles away. Michael’s stepmother and his father, Frederick Lee, a patrol officer with the Montana Department of Transportation, couldn’t afford time off to take him there, and they said the counselors Michael had seen told them that he had improved.
Now, weeks after their son’s funeral, they were left wondering what else they could have done — and what Montana can do — to stop this from happening.
“When it comes to depression and suicide in our community,” Lee said, “it’s out of control.”
A growing crisis
Suicide has been a persistent problem in Montana — and it’s getting worse. The state saw 25.9 suicides for every 100,000 residents in 2016, nearly double the national average, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that is age-adjusted. Since 1999, that rate has risen 38 percent, even faster than the 30 percent national rise in suicides.
The challenges Montana faces are many. It’s sparsely populated — the fourth-largest state by area, it’s 44th in population, with just over a million people — and it has less than a quarter of the mental-health care providers required to serve its residents, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. A strong gun culture and high rate of heavy alcohol consumption fuel the problem, as does lack of daylight in the winter and high altitude, which have both been linked to depression. And then there’s the stigma associated with reaching out for help, which many Montanans see as a sign of weakness.
“We have a perfect storm when it comes to suicide,” said Karl Rosston, suicide prevention coordinator for Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services. “We have a lot of factors that are all happening at the same time.”
Then, last year, came another blow: Facing a projected $227 million budget shortfall, Montana’s Republican-led legislature and Democratic governor made cuts to the state’s health department, including to mental health funding. As a result, more than 100 mental health professionals were laid off across the state and 10 rural health care programs were forced to close because they couldn’t afford to pay their employees, according to the Behavioral Health Alliance of Montana, an advocacy group for the state’s mental health providers.
Now, some who have lost loved ones to suicide — frustrated by the budget cuts and driven by the state’s urgent needs — are mobilizing to do whatever they can to stop the deaths. They are veterans and Native Americans, social workers and public health officials. They’re studying suicide prevention and opening clinics and speaking to students. But they still fear that, in many cases, their efforts will not be enough.
‘One is too many’
When Ryan Ranalli was growing up in Helena, Montana’s capital, there was at least one suicide in his high school each year. Later, after he joined the military and served in Iraq as an Army infantry squad leader, he lost more friends to suicide. More than 200 Montana veterans killed themselves from 2013 to 2016, representing nearly a fifth of the state’s suicides in that time, according to the state Office of Vital Statistics.