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ND Summit to Stop Suicide focuses on education, strategies

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) responds to questions about funding resources for mental health support and suicide prevention during “A Summit to Stop Suicide” at the West Fargo Conference Center on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018. “We cannot ignore this problem,” Heitkamp said about suicide. The event, which spanned four hours and was hosted by Heitkamp, featured a panel discussion and breakout sessions. Ann Arbor Miller / Forum News Service

WEST FARGO — After a study found North Dakota has the fastest growing rate of death by suicide in the nation, groups are coming together to strategize on how to reduce that growing number.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., hosted the Summit to Stop Suicide on Monday, Sept. 10, in which she invited 11 speakers from national and state organizations that deal with suicide and mental health to speak about what can be done to prevent a leading cause of death for 15 to 34 year olds in North Dakota.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vital Signs study showed a 58.6 percent increase in North Dakota’s rates between 2009 and 2016, which is at least 10 percent higher than the next state, Vermont, and 41 percent higher than the national average.

Heitkamp said one of the first things that can be done to reduce the rate is reduce the stigma of suicide and mental illness. But, she said the state’s services are also woefully under available for residents, especially in rural areas where transportation and cost can prevent use.

“We can’t do any of it if we don’t recognize we have a problem,” Heitkamp said.

In North Dakota, one person dies by suicide every 63 hours, said Mary Weiler, chair of the North Dakota Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

She said suicide deaths cost the state about $185 million in 2016, including costs for such things as investigations, funerals and time lost from jobs.

High school and college students, mental health professionals and educators as well as law enforcement officials, including Fargo Police Chief David Todd, West Fargo Police Chief Heith Jahnke, Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney and Stutsman County Sheriff Chad Kaiser attended the summit to learn more about the topic.

Weiler said she is very concerned about the link between opioid and alcohol use and suicide, especially when North Dakota has some of the highest drug and alcohol use rates in the nation.

Heitkamp said suicide is an issue that cuts across gender, socioeconomic and age lines to touch nearly everyone, but identifying those at risk is still difficult.

“There’s no one pathway to suicide. There are many, many pathways. There is no one way to identify that person at risk,” said Shelli Avenevoli, deputy director of the National Institutes of Mental Health.

FirstLink Executive Director Cindy Miller said 51,000 calls for help came into FirstLink last year, and of those, 6,500 were related to suicide. “That was a significant increase than the year before,” Miller said.

Experiencing or witnessing trauma can be a risk factor of suicide.

Mark LoMurray, director of Sources of Strength, a national program that promotes suicide education prevention and tries to offer support for those struggling, said while strides have been made in the mental health fields, addressing suicide is still behind. “Suicide prevention is about 20 years behind substance abuse prevention,” he said.

“We’re a suicide prevention program, and we don’t talk about suicide that much,” LoMurray said. “What we talk about is what helps in our life.”

North Dakota farmers are especially at risk these days as the western half of the state continues to recover from last year’s drought, and farmers face dropping prices amid a trade war, said Dave Ripplinger, a specialist at the North Dakota State University Extension.

“We’re experiencing a crisis in rural North Dakota,” he said.

Ripplinger said the current agricultural crisis is much different than what occured in the 1980s.

“Not everyone is experiencing the same level of stress in the community, and because of that, there is not the shared struggle or stress,” Ripplinger said. “It makes the situation that much worse.”

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and at CBS in Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

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