More than 50 people attended this year's Hill County Suicide Awareness Walk Thursday, where those affected by suicide did a one-mile route around Montana State University-Northern and talked about their experiences.
The event, organized by the Hill County Suicide Awareness Coalition and supported by the Hill County Local Advisory Council on Behavioral Health, has been held every year for almost a decade to raise awareness about suicide and to destigmatize the mental health issues that can lead a person to suicidal ideation.
Before the walk itself Hill County Suicide Awareness Coalition Chair Amber Spring, also the vice-chair of Hill County LAC, said this year they want to focus on a significant recent development in the fight against suicide, the establishment of the 988 Suicide Lifeline.
Spring said the three digit line was established last year by Congress and in its first week saw 96,000 calls and texts, up 45 percent from the previous week to the 10-digit toll free number number, and up 66 percent from the same week the previous year.
She said that month saw 131,000 more people contact the line, up 41 percent from the previous year, and within that month they saw a 1,000 percent increase in texts, the vast majority coming from young people.
She said these may seem like dry statistics, but they represent a profound improvement in the system, especially for youths and young adults.
"988 is making a generational impact and is something we may have never seen before," Spring said.
She said the rate of texts from the helpline being answered has risen from an alarming 25 percent to 98 percent since 988 was established, and the average time of response has decreased from two and a half minutes to 45 seconds.
She said the struggle for greater mental health access in the U.S. is far from over, but this may well be the most significant step toward suicide prevention in the history of the country, and that is worthy of celebration.
Spring said establishing 988 doesn't just help on a practical level, but it helps on a social level to further normalize mental health as a legitimate struggle for people in Montana and the U.S.
However, she said, there is still a great deal of work to be done, especially when it comes to mental health infrastructure.
She said 988 is an amazing tool for helping people to stabilize during times of crisis, but after the work of 988 is done those people need ongoing care in the immediate aftermath and when they return to their communities, and that's something that doesn't always happen.
Spring said 988 needs to be supported with the same kind of infrastructure that supports 911.
At the state level, she said, Montana is better off than many of its neighboring states, but they are still in need of more crisis response teams as well as more mental health professionals in general.
She said the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 163,000 Montanans suffer from some kind of mental health issue, and the majority of the population lives in a place with inadequate mental health care.
Spring said the National Council for Mental Wellbeing has indicated that, in the next 10 years, all states will be eligible for certified community behavioral health center funding, which will provide health care to anyone regardless of their ability to pay or diagnosis.
In the meantime, though, the local area needs help, she said, as demand for mental health care has risen significantly while the availability of service has either stayed the same or gone down since she moved to Havre 11 years ago.
She said the Suicide Awareness Coalition is down to just three people, making organizing events like this difficult, and the LAC is always looking for more members, specifically people who use mental health services in the community or advocate on behalf of those who do, to push local government to take mental health care seriously.
Spring said these aren't the only organizations in need of more people, and anyone can make a difference in the fight for mental health care.
"This work is too important for us to rock back on our heels and assume that someone else will do it," she said. "People with passion and determination can move mountains."
Those affected speak
Before the walk, many people talked to the crowd about their own experiences and those of their loved one, and many testified about the profound impact that seeking help can have on a person's life.
One of the speakers was Hope Hollingsworth, an RN who is finishing up a psychiatric nurse practitioner degree so she can help other people out of situations like the one she found herself in 20 years ago.
Hollingsworth said she's a recovering alcoholic, but before she got sober she attempted to take her own life, a formative event that influenced her decision to go into mental health care.
She said she understands all too well the extreme emotional state some people find themselves in where they just want to stop the pain they're feeling by any means necessary and she wants to help them anyway she can.
She said she knows how flawed mental health care in the U.S. is, but despite its issues it is always better to seek out help than try to go it alone.
"It's a hamstrung system," she said, "but there are people who care about you all around."
Marty Lundstrom was also among those who spoke, saying four years ago he very nearly attempted suicide, but fortune favored him, and he was able to pull himself out of the dark place he was in long enough to seek help.
"People that know me know that I love to hunt and fish but they also know that I can't swim, and one day ... I hooked up the boat, and the plan was that I wasn't coming back, Lundstrom said. "By the grace of God, the fish were biting, I got a lot of fish and it cleared my mind."
He said he still struggles with suicidal thoughts now and then, but he's now able to process those emotions much better.
He also testified to the usefulness of the 988 text line, which he's used in the past.
"The text line works," he said. "I can vouch for it."
Another speaker was Karen Stacy who, after being paralyzed from the waist down in 2015, struggled with depression, anxiety and the feeling that she was only weighing other people down.
"I felt like I was a burden on my family," Stacy said. "I was going through substance abuse and I had just found out that my son was going to be having my first granddaughter and I thought 'Well, everybody's moving on, they don't need me.'"
She said even though she still struggles she's glad her attempt at suicide was unsuccessful and begged people who feel like she felt to reach out for help.
"This stuff is real but there is help out there," she said. " ... Depend on people, because you can't do it by yourself, you just can't."
Barry Brownlee, another speaker, coached a young man who felt similar to Stacy and was unfortunately successful in taking his own life.
"For some dumb reason, he thought that his son would be better without him," Brownlee said choking back tears.
He said he saw the young man whom he'd become friends with not long before his death and he had no idea that anything was wrong, and that fact still haunts him years later.
"Sometimes you don't notice that someone is hurting. I think every day, 'Could I have said something? Could I have done something to stop him?'" he said. "I think that's the hardest thing for me, I feel like I failed for not noticing. It's my struggle, and every time we do this, I watch and wonder if I should say anything and it makes me think if that's the way he felt, not knowing what to say or who to go to."
Brownlee said he hopes he will one day be able to come to terms with what happened but, in the meantime, he hopes to keep the memory of his friend alive.
He wasn't the only one to honor a fallen friend.
Anthony Mascarenas said he only just got back from Florida, from burying his best friend since childhood who took his own life.
"He was a wonderful human being and I'm here to honor him and his life, and do what I can to start supporting the cause," he said.