Wednesday, June 12, 2024

She’s fighting to save America’s ‘last best place’ from suicide | World News – The Indian Express

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On a typical day, Ali Mullen races from her job at the county health department in Helena, Montana, to pick up dinner for her three children, heads home to feed them and then goes back out for a violin lesson or a school play, crisscrossing the small city in her aging SUV, with a rainbow bumper sticker that reads “You Are Loved.”

A big pack of gummy bears keeps her going, stashed in her handbag next to a different sort of lifesaver: a gun lock that she carries almost everywhere she goes.

In a sparsely populated state where many people own firearms, the small metal contraptions, which fit around a trigger and cost less than $10 on Amazon, are one way Montanans are trying to reduce the high rate of people who kill themselves.

For the past year, Ali, 46, has been giving gun locks away to anyone who wants one, her piece of trying to solve the puzzle of suicide in Montana.

“It’s in the culture,” she said one afternoon in Helena. “If you don’t know someone, you know of someone who has died.”

Murder rates and mass shootings make national headlines, defining the discussion over pervasive gun violence. But most gun deaths in America are self-inflicted. There were about 27,000 gun suicides in 2022. That was a record, and far higher than the 19,500 gun homicides documented that year.

Ali Mullen moved to Montana in college after a road trip introduced her to the wonders of the state. (Photo: The New York Times)

There have been more gun suicides than gun homicides in the United States every year for the past 25 years. Yet the harm inflicted on communities by suicides rarely registers in the national debate over guns.

Over the past three years, Montana’s typically elevated suicide rate was the highest in the nation, according to an analysis of federal mortality data by The New York Times. In a state of 1.1 million people, 955 people died by suicide from January 2021 through November 2023. Other states in the Mountain West, including Wyoming and New Mexico, have also struggled with high suicide rates and face many of the same challenges as Montana.

Several years ago, Ali’s husband’s family passed down some firearms that were considered heirlooms, and she agreed they could be stored at her house.

At the time, suicide did not cross her mind.

“We all know each other,” said Ali Mullen, embracing her daughter at an event in Helena for people who have lost a loved one to suicide. (Photo: The New York Times) “We all know each other,” said Ali Mullen, embracing her daughter at an event in Helena for people who have lost a loved one to suicide. (Photo: The New York Times)

The first time Ali drove through Montana, she was in college on a road trip in the late 1990s. She remembers how the clouds cast giant shadows on the open plains, revealing the state’s “Big Sky.”

She was hooked.

She transferred to the University of Montana from a college in Illinois. After graduation, she worked as a 911 dispatcher in Glacier National Park.

John Mullen was working as a handyman at what is now the Whitefish Mountain Resort when they met.

They married in Glacier. “It’s the greatest place on Earth,” she said of Glacier.

After their first child, a daughter, was born in 2006, they moved to the Helena area to be closer to John’s parents.

The vice president of a community bank took a liking to John and hired him as mortgage loan officer. He was a natural, tapping his connections across greater Helena where he had lived since he was a boy.

For years, John struggled with his mental health and Ali begged him to see a therapist, but he resisted. “I think it was very hard for him to admit that he was struggling,” she said.

The Mullens moved to the Helena area after the birth of their first child. (Photo: The New York Times) The Mullens moved to the Helena area after the birth of their first child. (Photo: The New York Times)

One condition Ali had for bringing guns into her house was that they had to be locked up to keep them safe from their children.

One Christmas, when her children were still little, she bought a safe from a Helena gun shop for $100 and put it under the tree.

Ali and John kept the keys in a place only they knew about. But Ali eventually realized that her husband was the one who needed protecting.

On the evening of Jan. 20, 2021, the family had finished dinner when John walked outside with a gun.

Ali realized what was happening and followed him out into the yard. By the time the paramedics arrived, she knew that her husband wouldn’t survive.

Ali fell to the ground. A deputy sheriff helped her up. Then she went inside and told her three children what had happened.

The year John Mullen died, at age 40, Montana was among the nation’s fastest growing states.

Ultrawealthy second-home owners and people wanting an escape from mask and vaccine mandates elsewhere all came seeking their piece of the “Last Best Place,” as Montana is known.

Ali considered moving out of the house where her husband died. But with so many people relocating to Montana, it was difficult to find an affordable home for sale.

She felt trapped. People she barely knew would stop her in Costco to ask how she was doing. Grocery clerks would start crying when she walked in the store. Despite this sympathy, “I felt utterly alone,” she said. “Like I was the only person in Helena that this had happened to.”

Ms. Mullen held an urn necklace filled with the ashes of her late husband. (Photo: The New York Times) Ms. Mullen held an urn necklace filled with the ashes of her late husband. (Photo: The New York Times)

In the spring of 2022, Ali realized she was far from the only one.

She joined a newly organized group called the LOSS team, which stands for Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors and which supports people whose loved ones have died by suicide.

As part of the team’s outreach, a survivor and a mental health professional visit a home in the days after a death has occurred.

Seeing a survivor who is “dressed” and “functioning” after experiencing a loss “plants seeds of hope” in the newly bereaved, according to the LOSS team website.

When Ali attended her first meeting, she realized the scale of the suicide problem. “I had never seen so many survivors in one place” she said.

She met Rowan Rankin, who with her best friend started a group called Saving Helena High School because they wanted to raise awareness about the student suicides there.

Rankin, who graduated from the high school in 2016 and now works as a care coordinator at the Helena children’s hospital, said, “gun ownership is an important part of many Montanans’ lives and that isn’t going to change.” But she believes that “learning to safely store lethal means” can help prevent gun suicides.

Ali has also taught her three children a series of “protective barriers” to keep them safe from suicide.

If they experience anxiety, they have steps to get “grounded” again. When they feel lonely, they need to call a friend.

Ali’s daughter, Nora, was a member of the National Honor Society this year and starred in the school musical at Helena High School. In the fall, Nora is headed to the University of Montana to study biology. Ali’s two sons earned straight A’s this year.

A big source of support and inspiration at Helena High School had been a science teacher and trusted counselor for students in crisis named David McKim.

One day in early November, Ali was at work when Nora called and “could barely speak,” Ali recalled.

McKim had taken his life.

She raced over to the school to pick up her daughter and son and any other students who wanted to join them.

A group of them hunkered down at the Mullens’ house. They baked cookies and watched cartoons. One boy stayed for four days.

Even in a small city of about 34,000 people that is accustomed to suicide, McKim’s death shook the community.

Ali attended McKim’s memorial service in a school gym in Helena. The mayor of Helena was there, alongside hundreds of students, parents and teachers.

Some of the speakers at the service were open about McKim’s challenges with mental health, a candor that was seen by many as a step toward raising awareness about the issue.

During the service, Ali saw the fresh grief on many students’ faces. She handed out pamphlets to parents about spotting warning signs in teens. She insisted some students take cards with the suicide hotline number printed on it.

She listened to stories about McKim, a devoted teacher and avid outdoorsman, who loved Montana. Like her husband had.

A former colleague of McKim’s quoted from a book by Montana-raised writer Norman Maclean:

“Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.

“The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”

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