Something bad is going on in the Mining City. In the last month, three high school students have taken their own life. Needless to say the community is reeling and I have spent the past few days trying to wrap my head around what is happening in my beloved hometown. When a young person takes their own life, the entire community feels that impact, whether they knew the child or not.
For those of you without Butte connections, it is important to note that suicide is a very serious issue in Montana and what is happening in Butte could very well be a story in any community in our state, mental illness does not discriminate and it does not recognize borders.
Like millions of others across the nation, I am no stranger to mental illness. I have struggled with depression and anxiety most of my life, and only as an adult am I learning how to properly take care of myself and manage my issues. It is easier to admit these things now, and while I knew about them as a student at Butte High, I had no idea that others felt the same way. In fact, one of my classmates, someone I have known for most of my life (considering how old we both are now) recently came forward to publicly share his story of depression as a means to shed light on the situation and offer some healing to Butte. Please take a moment to read his story and his follow up, both are powerful examples of the courage it takes to talk openly about issues so stigmatized in our day to day lives.
Kevin and I are not alone. Not by a long shot. According to NAMI-Montana, 1 in 5 Montana families are impacted by mental illness. 1 in 5! Sadly Montana also has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. We have to do better than this.
We could spend plenty of time debating why the issues in Montana are so high; bullying, social pressure, finances, family, relationships, isolation, drugs, etc. But what is happening is bigger than those factors. Montana is failing in addressing mental illness. We ignore the true costs of a broken mental health care system, gut programs and slash budgets that could help communities. And as I write this, conservative politicians remain hellbent on repealing the Affordable Care Act “Obamacare” despite the fact that as of January 1, 2014 millions of Americans will have more accessible care through the elimination of lifetime limits and banning the use of “pre-existing conditions” as a reason to deny insurance.
In Montana, 70,000 working Montanans are still without health insurance, due to the legislature’s failure to expand Medicaid. That means thousands of Montanans and their children may be forced to ignore symptoms rather than seek out help they need, all because they can’t afford to seek out care. Meanwhile dozens of efforts to improve mental health services, whether through studies or increased funding, all failed to pass during the 2013 legislative session, despite demonstration of need and bi-partisan support.
No question that Montana has a “toughen up” attitude but at what point do we admit to ourselves that attitude is killing our children and devastating our communities. By taking the first step in admitting that we have significant mental health needs in our state, Montana could start doing more to protect our families and save lives. We need to do better.