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MT Psychologist: Time to Rethink Suicide Prevention

The United States' suicide rate increased 60% between 1999 and 2017. (Michail Petrov/AdobeStock)
The United States' suicide rate increased 60% between 1999 and 2017. (Michail Petrov/AdobeStock)
May 6, 2019

BOZEMAN, Mont. – A Montana psychologist wants folks to get a new perspective on an issue that is plaguing the state – suicide.

Montana has ranked in the top five for suicide rates nationwide for three decades, according to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The issue is growing across the nation. Rates increased 60 percent from 1999 to 2017.

John Sommers-Flanagan, a professor of counselor education at the University of Montana, says misconceptions about suicide persist.

He says one of the biggest issues is that it's associated with mental illness, but current science doesn't support this assumption.

"Suicide ideation or the thoughts about suicide are really a normal human experience,” he explains. “It's a normal thing that people experience and feel when they are also in excruciating distress."

Sommers-Flanagan is hosting workshops for counselors and lectures across Montana this summer, starting with a lecture at Montana State University on May 16.

The events are sponsored by Big Sky Youth Empowerment, a Bozeman-based group that works with at-risk teenagers.

Addressing another misconception, Sommers-Flanagan says people can't always rely on the typical warning signs for suicide risk.

"Truth is that the research just doesn't bear that out,” he states. “Every set of risk factors and warning signs ever produced has not been very effective proactively in identifying people who are at risk for, or likely to die by, suicide."

However, Sommers-Flanagan says a lack of concrete warning signs could lead counselors to be less authoritarian in their treatment, leading to a new way of interacting with people. He says a new model helps people feel more empowered.

"The new trend is to do collaborative suicide assessment and collaborative treatment planning so that the patient or the client feels heard and feels involved and engaged in the counseling or psychotherapy or treatment," he points out.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT