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Growing Up in Flathead County, Montana— A Hotbed of Suicide Deaths


I attended my first funeral at age eighteen. He was a friend, a gifted musician, and a troubled teen caught up in the juvenile delinquent system of Flathead County in northwestern Montana. The funeral took place in February, 1990, the same week an Arctic storm plunged temperatures to brutal lows. Leafless tree branches reached out like fingers desperate for warmth.

I stood in a huddle with my friends, probably not wearing a coat, mourning a friendship that took decades to process the real meaning behind the death. With the perspective of time, I now recognize the trauma that shadowed the lives of many youth in Flathead County. We were not football players or basketball stars, nor were we losers or failures in the conventional sense, but a pervasive inadequacy ate away at our self-esteem. Some of us were bullied at school, and many of us were bullied at home. My friends and I felt safe with each other, though our friendships were built more out of a magnetism than genuine connection. None of us knew how to navigate our home lives.

I had graduated from high school in 1989, and one year later, I still didn't know how to pursue my interests. I held a low-rank in my family, and my interests revolved as a distant priority, attainable only if they didn't inconvenience parents or my older sister's cross-country or basketball practice. Nobody knew my struggle, but I was traumatized when my sister's violence against me at home was overlooked while she donned the face of a champion.

I began adulthood by being launched into a lion's den. My sense of trust was maladapted—an adversary more than an ally—and I threw myself into any situation that I perceived as a safety net. Luckily, I survived. Many Flathead youths did not.

Beginning around the time of my friend's funeral, Flathead County began a thirty-year rank as one of the nation's top-five counties for suicide deaths. The most current ranking is third. Per capita, the numbers are alarming, and as I reflect upon other memories of my youth, death by suicide seemed to creep into the Flathead experience around the time I was in seventh grade: my English teacher's son, a high school classmate, a family friend. 

In Montana, many victims of household violence and abuse live in rural areas without access to resources, and many young people are convinced that nobody cares. Apathy is the worst kind of violence—pervasive and invisible— and in emotional terms, it is an Arctic storm after an undeserved death.

I am compelled to share my story to combat the stigma of depression and mental illness as a result of trauma. Especially, I represent an underserved region of our country in which sparsity does not equate to safety. Guns are available in most Montana households, and with suicide rates at an all-time high, now is the time to implement pro-active measures to keep Montana's youth safe in their homes and in their communities. 

Barbie Beaton

*I am currently writing my memoir. Meanwhile, a growing community of trauma-informed supporters have subscribed to my blog. I am here to learn more about my own potential outreach and to connect with others who believe in applying ACEs more widely to achieve greater compassion among humankind. 

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