Billings experts warn suicide attempts under-reported, problem o - KTVQ.com | Q2 | Continuous News Coverage | Billings, MT

Billings experts warn suicide attempts under-reported, problem on the rise

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Joe Chalupa speaks with people about suicide at NAMI (MTN News) Joe Chalupa speaks with people about suicide at NAMI (MTN News)
Dr. Eric Arzubi called the rate of attempted suicides in Billings a crisis (MTN News) Dr. Eric Arzubi called the rate of attempted suicides in Billings a crisis (MTN News)

A Billings police officer said he’s lost track of how many suicide attempts he has responded to over the years, but said there is one he won’t soon forget.

"We had a guy on the Rims that was considering jumping and we stood up there for about four hours talking to him," said Officer Tom Keightley, who has worked as a negotiator with the department for the past six years.

Keightley said it was difficult to negotiate with the man because of the loudness of the planes coming through.

“We had to shout to each other, which is not very calming," said Keightley. "In the end, it was really gratifying, being able to talk him down. Later you think, wow that was close.”

Keightley says he's had many encounters with suicidal people, but most are less dramatic.

“Very often, it's just someone who's expressed a desire and we take that very seriously," said Keightley.

The annual Billings police report recorded close to 1,000 attempted suicides in 2015 alone.

Mental health professionals call that number alarming, but say it's actually about twice as high.

"That is really, really low, that is who was reported," said Joe Chalupa, the executive director at the National Alliance on Mental Health in Billings.

The Montana Department of Health and Human Services recorded nearly 25 completed suicides per 100,000 people, which is about twice the national average.

But even more people attempted suicide.

"It's a crisis and at this point there aren't many signs that things are getting better," said Dr. Eric Arzubi, a child psychiatrist at Billings Clinic.

Arzubi said that the danger with younger patients is that their suicidal thoughts are not taken seriously.

“There are ways to get attention that aren't harmful so if someone has resorted to self harm or a suicide attempt to get attention, that to me is a flag that something is wrong," said Arzubi.

In the 2015 youth risk assessment survey conducted annually by the Montana Office of Public Instruction, 19 percent of Montana students reported seriously considering suicide and 10 percent of students said they had made a suicide attempt.

A CDC report released in early November shows that for the first time, suicides claimed more lives than car crashes among American children age 10-14.

"There’s no one demographic, it doesn't really seem to have barriers as far as income," said Keightley.

Regardless of income, everyone is welcome at NAMI, where Joe Chalupa lends an ear to people in their darkest hour.

"Sometimes having that ear to listen to can take care of the situation," said Chalupa.

But often the issue is deeper and requires professional help and that can be hard to find.

"Wait times are unacceptable,” said Arzubi. “It's probably going to be at least a month before you can get in."

Only if a person is in the midst of a suicide attempt can he or she be seen immediately.

Police will take a high-risk patient to the psychiatric unit at the emergency room, but Chalupa and Arzubi say it shouldn't have to reach that point.

“We're not quick enough and we make it challenging to get help," said Chalupa.

Billings police are working to certify each officer in crisis intervention training.

Chalupa offers free counseling and Arzubi is working to expand access to psychiatric care.

But all three agree that some of the responsibility rests on the community.

"Talking about it, making people feel comfortable and safe talking about it at that little age so once you become the cowboy in the pickup truck, you still feel comfortable talking about it instead of keeping it in," said Chalupa.

Arzubi said removing the stigma around suicide is a critical step.

“Step one: don't judge, step two: validate what they're feeling,” said Arzubi. “People who attempt suicide or complete suicide get to a point where they feel helpless and trapped. They feel trapped because they see no other options. It's up to us to provide those options."

Ways to help:

Dr. Eric Arzubi said anyone can volunteer with the crisis hotline text service to send and receive messages from someone in need.

Intervening when bullying is taking place or reporting it to the proper authorities.

Volunteer with programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Adult Resource Alliance to help vulnerable populations.

Read and learn about warning signs and intervention.

Places to get help:

Stop in to NAMI to speak with Joe Chalupa.

Visit with a counselor or therapist.

Make an appointment with a psychiatrist.

Call or text 'START' to 741741 to access the crisis hotline.

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