As a state, Montana generally does very well in terms of health rankings. According to a recent report from the Centers of Disease Control, Montana has an obesity rate of 23.8%, putting us 48th in the nation (that’s 48th in a good way), and we were one of four states whose obesity rate actually went down last year. Our state also ranks 47th in rate of diabetes and 45th in hypertension. Well done, Montana!

But there’s at least one area that Montana doesn’t do well, and that’s mental health. In fact, the mental health statistics for our state are dismal. In 2012, Montana ranked 3rd highest in suicide rate, with a rate nearly double the national average. We have had one of the highest state suicide rates for literally decades.¹ 

Unfortunately, mental health is often overlooked or ignored. In honor of May being Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s give mental health some of the attention it deserves.

A number of factors are thought to contribute to Montana’s high suicide and depression rates, including:

    • Social isolation. Our state is largely rural and the low population density can mean that people are left without needed social support.
    • Poor mental health infrastructure. A 2016 DPHHS report found that 55 out of Montana’s 56 counties were classified as areas with a shortage of mental health providers and resources.
    • Alcohol abuse. Binge drinking, underage drinking, DUIs, and alcohol-related fatality rates in Montana are all high compared to other states.² An estimated 30-40% of suicide victims have alcohol in their system at the time of death.³
    • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The further away from the equator a person lives, the more likely they are to experience SAD, which is a type of depression.
    • Stigma. Montana has a culture of independence and self-sufficiency. While these characteristics are helpful in many ways, for mental health, they can be devastating. A culture that discourages people from talking openly about problems often prevents people from asking for help or seeking out resources when needed. In addition, individuals living with mental health conditions face discrimination in terms of employment and housing, and are often stereotyped as dangerous and irresponsible.† According to the CDC, only 25% of adults with mental health symptoms believe that other people are caring and sympathetic towards people with mental illness.‡

While public policy and advocacy can make an impact on mental health infrastructure and alcohol laws, it’s that last factor—stigma—that we should all take personal responsibility in helping to eliminate. The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) urges us all to recognize that mental health conditions are not a result of personal failure or weakness, or a reflection of a poor upbringing.‡‡ The way we talk about mental health can make a big difference too in terms of reducing the stigma. See the infographic below for suggestions on how to discuss mental health in stigma-free ways.

Stigma freeFrom https://www.nami.org/Get-Involved/Take-the-stigmafree-Pledge/StigmaFree-Me

It’s also important to be open to mental health-related discussions, to recognize warning signs of potential problems, and provide judgment-free support and connection to resources for our family members and friends. Here are a few good resources along those lines:

Know the Warning Signs of Mental Health Conditions (NAMI)

Supporting a Friend or Family Member with Mental Health Problems (mentalhealth.gov)

How to Help in an Emotional Crisis (American Psychological Association)

One in five families in Montana are affected by mental illness, so even though many people are reluctant to talk about it, it’s something that many of us are living and dealing with. Remember that treatment exists for depression and other mental health conditions. Many of our campuses have top-notch counseling staff and facilities that are available and convenient for faculty/staff, and the MUS insurance plan offers four free counseling sessions with an in-network provider. We always encourage plan members to take advantage of this benefit, recognizing that optimal mental health is essential for holistic wellness. Even if you consider your problem or issue to be relatively minor, it can be incredibly beneficial to talk it out and get an outside perspective from a licensed therapist.

In addition, work/life balance, stress management, and taking time for hobbies or activities that you enjoy are key to maintaining good mental health. Remember to take a picture this month showing what you do to improve your mental health and submit it to the Rural Health Initiative’s photo contest!

Finally, if you or someone you know needs immediate help for a mental health crisis, call 911. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK. For a comprehensive list of local and national mental health resources, check out http://mtdh.ruralinstitute.umt.edu/?page_id=721

References:

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