Tester co-sponsors legislation to help prevent youth suicide

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

National legislation aimed at preventing youth suicide is wending its way through the U.S. Senate, capturing the attention of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who has signed on as a co-sponsor.

The Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act Reauthorization Act of 2013 was introduced Jan. 23. It awaits a hearing by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The bill provides grants to develop early intervention and prevention strategies in communities and offers assistance to provide mental health services in schools.

The legislation seeks an appropriation of $7 million for each of the fiscal years 2014 through 2018.

Suicide is an issue that touches Montana at its core.

Between 1999 and 2009, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 14 and adolescents to adults ages 15 to 24, behind unintentional injuries like auto and farm accidents.

In 2010 and 2011, 57 youth ages 15 to 24 killed themselves in Montana.

It is an issue that has plagued the state for more than three decades. An estimated 15 Montanans attempt suicide every day. The problem is so prevalent that mental health leaders characterize it as a public health crisis. Risk factors include a lack of mental health resources, social isolation, drug and alcohol abuse and a “cowboy up” mentality.

More than 90 percent of people who kill themselves are suffering from mental illness.

“I am committed to reducing Montana’s suicide rate,” Tester said. “Too many Montanans need help, and I will work with folks across our state to make sure we have adequate lifesaving tools and resources.”

Matt Kuntz, executive director of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, applauded Tester for his effort to reauthorize the legislation.

“There are a lot of great suicide prevention programs under the Act, but the most valuable function to Montana is how the act brings the best practices for early intervention in mental illness and suicide prevention to the state,” Kuntz said. “No one in Montana has the resources to develop and test these programs, so we rely on federal resources to ensure that we’re implementing programs that work.”

On Oct. 21, 2004, President George W. Bush signed the nation’s first youth suicide prevention bill into law. It was named in memory of Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., whose son committed suicide. It authorized $82 million over three years for youth suicide prevention programs including voluntary, confidential, screening programs like TeenScreen. This legislation provides grants to states, American Indian Tribes, and colleges to support suicide prevention efforts and initiatives.

Past grantees have included the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, Northern Cheyenne Board of Health, Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes and the Chippewa Cree Tribe.

Tester is also co-sponsoring the Mental Health First Aid Act, which is designed to help community leaders identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness. It has bipartisan support.

The Mental Health First Aid Act will provide grants for mental health first aid training programs for groups of individuals such as teachers, first responders, police officers, school and college administrators, veterans, and nurses. The bill also outlines a particular focus on training in rural areas.

Specifically, the bill would:

  • Highlight available mental health resources in local communities, including Community Mental Health Centers, emergency psychiatric facilities, hospital emergency rooms and other programs offering psychiatric crisis beds.
  • Teach the warning signs and risk factors for schizophrenia, major clinical depression, panic attacks, anxiety disorders, trauma, and other common mental disorders.
  • Teach crisis de-escalation techniques.
  • Provide trainees with a five-step plan to help individuals in psychiatric crisis connect to professional mental health care.

“Concrete steps to improve care and increase resources available to cope with mental illness will help folks lead healthy, productive lives,” Tester said. “These bills improve on-the-ground access to lifesaving tools and resources and make our communities safer places to live and work.”