Jackie Evans-Shaw / Montana Kaimin

The University of Montana Mental Health Allies outlined the Oval with blue flags Sept. 2 to represent the 1,100 college students who die by suicide every year nationally.  

The student group is using the flags as a talking piece on campus, as the beginning of September marks the start of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Alex Barkus, co-president of Mental Health Allies, said she wants people to understand from upcoming events on suicide prevention and awareness that this is a big issue on UM’s campus that is not going away. 

“It’s not being talked about, and we’re not being proactive about what’s going on,” Barkus said. “Our group just wants to get more people involved, get more people talking about it and end the stigma around it.”

Barkus said the flags are blue because it is the color most associated with mental health, but she wants to change them next year to yellow, the color that is usually associated with suicide awareness and stands for hope. 

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death nationally for people 10-34 years old, according to the CDC’s leading causes of death reports in 2017. But ages 18-25 had the highest rate of serious suicidal thoughts and attempts out of all age groups, based on the 2017 national survey on drug use and health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  

But suicide isn’t just a national issue. Montana is ranked as the No. 1 state for suicide as a leading cause of death in 2017, according to statistics from the National Center for Health. Factors like isolation, stigma, seasonal depression, alcohol consumption and easy gun access are a large part of why Montana ranks so high, according to the Montana Suicide Handbook compiled by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. 

There are many factors that can lead to high suicide rates on campuses when students don’t know what to do when faced with struggles like finances, stress, depression, peer pressure, substance abuse or taking care of themselves, Barkus said. 

“It’s something that needs to be normalized or else it’s never going to get better,” Barkus said. 

UM Mental Health Allies fundraises for scholarships through Curry Health Center to enable students who can’t afford counseling services to attend sessions for free or partial charge. UM Mental Health Allies co-president Jessica Jewell said we need to be realistic that mental health affects people everywhere, including UM’s campus, but students are not alone. She said the student group wants to bring those resources out in public this month. 

“Maybe they’re not comfortable even looking for those resources themselves,” Jewell said. “If they see our flags out on the oval or our tables out on the oval, it might be a safer space for them to explore those options. That could be life-changing for people.”

More information is available on the UM Mental Health Allies’ Facebook page.

24-Hour Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255