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A Deadly Equation: Suicide in the West

 
 

Photos by Brian McDermott

Kodi Borris, 8, of Ronan steps back into her mom’s embrace after saying the name of her brother, Stephen, in remberance to a gathered circle of mourners at St. Anthony Parish after Missoula’s first Suicide Memorial and Awareness walk.

The dead were named. They were remembered. Then, in the hallway of St. Anthony Parish, there was an awkward shuffle to day-to-day conversation between strangers as the group moved towards a folding table with homemade cookies.

The inaugural Suicide Memorial Awareness Walk in Missoula ended here. Moments earlier a circle of 22 mourners spoke the names of loved ones- some in whispers, some with breaking voices, some holding a defiantly steady tone.

Kodi Borris, a ponytailed eight-year-old, stepped toward the center the hushed circle.

“Stephen,” she said quietly.

“Stephen,” repeated the group of mourners.

Stephen is Stephen Adam Borris, Kodi’s stepbrother, who hung himself while in the Hill County Jail in Havre on May 11, 2004.

Just a few minutes later Kodi and her brother David, then 9, buzzed around with the quashed energy from the circle and the candlelight march preceding it. Kodi and David’s mother, Mary Borris, 37, tried to keep an eye on her daughter and son as they wove through the crowd. She is a short, approachable woman who seems like a person you might joke with while waiting in line at a convenience store.

“These kids understand death way too well,” Mary said later.

It was a small memorial in a small city in a state with a small population. But these people were the reminder of a terrible equation that causes Montana, and more broadly the Rocky Mountain West, to have consistently high suicide rates: Ready access to guns, little or no access to mental health professionals and a prevailing attitude that makes it difficult to take help even when it’s there.

Eight of the ten states with the highest suicide rates are in the West. Montana had the third highest suicide rate in the nation in 2003, behind Wyoming and Alaska. 2003 is the most recent year for which figures are available.

In Missoula County, the rate is below the state average, and below the average of neighboring Ravalli and Lake counties. But it’s higher than the suicide rate for North Dakota. It’s more than double the rate of New York City.

In 2005, 23 people killed themselves in Missoula County. All 23 were men — the population perhaps most susceptible to the “cowboy up” stigma attached to mental health.

“Men don’t deal with their depression,” Mary Borris said. “They think it’s a sissy disease.” Men committed 81 percent of Montana’s 179 suicides in 2003.

Those doing suicide prevention work in Montana say there are ways to lower the rates, but it would take will and money — which some Western states lack. North Dakota, on the other hand, can be an example of what works. While close in geography and culture to the Rocky Mountain West, North Dakota has managed to lower the suicide rate in 10 to 19-year-olds by almost half over a four-year span. It did this through a targeted program of screenings, educational programs, mentoring, and support groups.

Maureen O’Malley, the part-time coordinator of the Missoula City-County Health Department’s suicide prevention network said, “Nothing’s ever been done like this before in Montana.”

 
  Mary Borris, center, hugs her daughter Kodi as her half-brother Mike Todd tries to keep David Borris, 9, in the family picture. Todd lives with the Borris’s in Ronan. The family has experienced a tremendous amount of loss over the past few years. David Borris, Mary’s husband, died in May 2005, a year after her his son Stephen committed suicide in the Hill County Jail.

The Borrises live in Ronan, Lake County, which is equidistant from the National Bison Range and Flathead Lake and about 50 miles north of Missoula. It’s October, and two faceless ghosts made of trash bags stuffed with leaves hang beside the door to the one-story house, which is painted as white as Hollywood teeth. On a clear day, the Mission Mountains peak in the distance, with white caps of their own.

Inside is no requiem. Two kittens, Jacques and Goldie, navigate the clutter of two children- clothes, homework, toys, french fries on a cookie sheet on the stove. The computer hums. There is laughter. Mary cuddles with David as he plays video games. She is a busy woman- working the overnight shift as a nurse’s aide at the St. Luke Community Nursing Home and sleeping until just before her children come home from school.

“I’m trying to keep my job,” Mary said. “I’m trying to keep a roof over my children’s head. I try to keep the stress in my life away from the kids.” Despite the stress, she is the type of person whose baseline mood seems to be warm and chatty.

But the stress and grief finds the living room. David comes in, showing off his grotesque grim reaper Halloween costume that spouts fake blood under the plastic cover of its skull face. Propped on either side of a row of ceramic angels are Mass cards remembering Stephen Borris and his father, David, Mary’s husband, who died in May 2005 from diabetes. After Stephen killed himself, the elder David was devastated. “He was really close to his son,” Mary said, and David’s health worsened considerably after Stephen’s death. He died 364 days after the suicide.

Stephen’s suicide was not the family’s first. Mary’s second cousin, Marvin Gardipee, killed himself in October 2003. Mary’s brother James J. Hoover shot himself in 1990 after firing a rifle at his girlfriend and a passerby while stopped at the Clinton exit on Interstate 90. It was an “if I can’t have you, nobody will,” Mary says.

James and Mary were 9 months apart. She said they finished each other’s sentences. They lived together near the Clark Fork River in Missoula. He was angry, sometimes enough that he beat her. She was asleep in that house when a sheriff’s deputy came to the door. She lifted the curtain and, as she got dressed to answer the door, said she knew he was gone. She spent the next year drinking. She had no contact with any social service agency before or after any of her family’s suicides.

“I really miss my brother. My brother’s supposed to be here with me,” she said.

It can be a mystery to those who know the victims best.

 
  A card from the funeral of Stephen Adam Borris sits on a shelf full of angel statues in the Borrises Ronan living room.

Stephen Borris was arrested on a Saturday morning after he crashed a car. The parents of an underage girl he was fooling around with suspected they were having sex and wanted to press charges. The girl told police that he didn’t penetrate; that technicality forced the police to drop any sexual assault charge, but Borris still faced a cocktail of traffic offenses and two warrants for failing to appear in court. One of those warrants was for a charge that he used a toy gun to mug a man in Great Falls.

He spent Sunday, Monday and Tuesday in the Hill County Jail. His girlfriend sent him a letter saying how angry she was that he had been fooling around. According to what Mary was told, he read it. He put his napkin over his plate. He left lunch early.

“He didn’t show any signs or give any indication he was having a problem,” Sheriff Greg Szudera told the Havre Daily News after the suicide.

Forty minutes later, a jail staffer found him unconscious in his jail cell, the victim of what the sheriff called a “choking maneuver” and Mary calls hanging. He looped a sheet around the top bunk, tied a noose, and kneeled. The jail staffer performed CPR, which kept Stephen breathing. He died the next day at Northern Montana Hospital.

“I don’t understand it,” Mary said. As hurt and angry as his girlfriend’s letter was, it was signed “Love.” He was in the middle of reading a book, “Omerta” by Mario Puzo, which was left open in his cell.

Stephen’s heart now beats in a 48-year-old Illinois man named Chuck, who sent Mary several letters. He also sent Mary a quilt, which she plans to give to Stephen’s biological mother. After Stephen died, the elder David and Stephen’s mother went to the airport in Havre and “watched the plane take off with his heart,” Mary said.

The obituary did not list the cause of Stephen’s death. Among other things, it said this:

“Stephen loved being around friends and family. He enjoyed playing basketball and always seemed on top of the world.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series examining suicide in Montana and the Rocky Mountain West. The second installment will publish Thursday

About Brian McDermott

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3 comments

  1. There is much alfulness in the world and some cannot accept the pressure and have a weak faith in the system. It is so true when they see the lies and deception that harbor in homes because leaders see dollars bills and people instead of not being of advantage and souls..
    Children understand death as being without breath but we need to do a better job at teaching what life is when we have breath.

  2. Brian McDermott did an amazing job illuminating a hidden subject with depth and feeling. The pictures of the new generation: Kodi and David are so touching in tandem with reading the extremely well-written article. I think he’s doing a real service writing this!

  3. Vaclav Havel once said, regarding people he knew who killed themselves rather than live under the stultifying grip of Communist USSR, it’s also an expression of the value of life. In “Disturbing the Peace,” he wrote:

    I have never been able to condemn suicides; instead, I tend to respect them, not only for the undoubted courage needed to commit suicide, but also because suicides place the value of life very high: they think that life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, without hope. Sometimes I wonder if suicides aren’t in fact sad guardians of the meaning of life.