Speaking of suicide - again

South Dakota state epidemiologist Josh Clayton told the House Health and Human Services Committee that suicide rates set a record high in 2017. That is the third year in a row that this has occurred. While the final numbers have not yet been released, there were more suicides in 2017 than the record 173 in 2016, which was higher than the record 161 in 2016.

South Dakota ranks 13th in the nation for suicide rate, with 18.6 self-inflicted deaths per 100,000 compared to the national average of 13.9.

While I’m citing statistics, it is important to note that Native Americans die by suicide at 1.8 times the rate for whites. Veterans die by suicide at double the rate for those who have not served in the armed forces.

Having started today’s journal entry with statistics, I must continue by saying that the tragedy of suicide is not about statistics. I personally responded to more suicides in 2017 than in 2016. I got up in the middle of the night more often. I drove more miles to b with families. I struggled to recruit volunteers to assist more than ever before. But I am not alone.

We have organized well here in the Black Hills. Our LOSS team has been recognized as one of the best teams in the nation and the team that is best integrated into law enforcement in the United States. Our trainers are reaching out beyond the boundaries of our county, providing training statewide as much as we are able within the limits of a small organization. Our Front Porch Coalition turns very modest resources into powerful prevention training while at the same time providing volunteers to respond 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

In December the Board of Directors authorized thousands of dollars to be invested in sending two Front Porch Coalition employees to the latest training for trainers in suicide prevention. By keeping our employees equipped with the highest levels of training we are able to not only provide the latest research-based resources to our community, but also to provide training for other communities in our state. We are on the front lines of changing the statistics in South Dakota.

South Dakota now requires schools to provide suicide awareness training. We are helping them to provide the latest and best training that is available.

It is a simple fact that most people thinking about suicide don’t actually want to die. They need someone who can help then choose to stay alive. It is equally true that when someone dies by suicide the loss affects those closest to that person in very deep ways. Losing a loved one to suicide roughly doubles one’s risk of dying of suicide themselves.

As I have already written in this journal, I do not understand why the Mayor and City Council of Rapid City do not think that investing in suicide prevention is a priority. It baffles me. But we will continue to work in our city despite the lack of their support. We have strong partnerships with our schools, law enforcement, churches and other important community institutions.

One of the saints of suicide prevention in Rapid City is a close friend of mine and a member of our congregation. Laura Boyd lost her son to suicide nearly 24 years ago. She has transformed her grief into service by becoming educated and working tirelessly for suicide prevention. The Survivors of Suicide Support group that she organized and still leads has served our community for more than two decades. She was instrumental in folding the Front Porch Coalition and the LOSS team. She has sought out training not only for herself, but has supported training of professionals and volunteers alike in our community. Part of the reason that I continue to be involved, sometimes near to the limits of my energy, is that I am inspired by Laura. Her dedication to the community and to the service of others is an example for me. If I am tired because my sleep is interrupted, I know she has responded to more calls than I. If I am discouraged because politicians are reluctant to speak of suicide, I know that she has persisted longer than I. She stays out in front of us as a shining example of what we can aspire to become. I am grateful that she is in my life and in the life of our community.

I want to set new records for Rapid City and for South Dakota. I believe that it is reasonable to set new record LOWS for suicide rates. I have witnessed effective suicide prevention. I have seen the results of successful mental illness treatment. Setting that kind of record, however, will require risk and investment.

I know that it is not popular to speak of any limits on gun ownership in our state. I also know that half of our suicides are by gun and that a large percentage of those who die by suicide use someone else’s guns. Common sense security items such as gun safes and trigger locks are effective to reduce suicide.

I know that it is not popular to speak of spending government money, but the lack of reasonable mental health services in our communities is not, as hospitals, and members of our state government will tell you, “a lack of beds.” We don’t have a furniture problem in South Dakota. We have a funding problem in South Dakota. As long as our legislature is unwilling to invest the needed money in mental health services, we will lack those services. And the cost to our state will continue to rise. Not investing in prevention costs more money in the long run.

I know that I am a lousy politician. I have no desire to do appear before legislative committees. I hope that they will listen to Josh Clayton and State Health Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon when they testify about preventable deaths. Suicide is a pressing public health issue.

It is clear to me that I will keep writing on this topic for years to come. I cringe at the pain that lies ahead for victims. I refuse, however, to be silent or to give up hope.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!