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Taking steps to prevent: Suicide Prevention Week starts Monday

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BEMIDJI -- Jim Thompson broke it down in the simplest of terms.

"This is how it works," he said. "Even someone who has a whole lot going for them, they will do it anyway."

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Thompson, a Bemidji City Council member, was talking about his daughter, Sara, who took her own life three years ago. At the most recent City Council meeting, Mayor Rita Albrecht presented a proclamation marking Suicide Prevention Week, which starts Monday.

Sara was 49 when she passed away, in the category of working adults who Jon Roesler of the Minnesota Department of Health said should be the new target for suicide prevention efforts.

"The message is, maybe now more than ever, we have to be able to do for everybody what we're doing for our youth and young adults," Roesler said. "We are not doing for working adults what we're doing for students."

The signs are there, literally, for young people who are at risk, Roesler said. Hotline numbers are posted on bulletin boards, guidance counselors and other personnel make sure students know there are people to talk to, to listen.

"When you go into a workplace, you're not seeing these things," Roesler said.

The increase

Since 2005, when a murder-suicide in Red Lake left 10 dead, including the shooter, here's what Roesler has learned: prevention efforts for those considering taking their own lives work. And now those efforts should be focused working adults, the suicide rates for which have increased, while rates for those under the age of 24 have levelled off.

But the uptick in suicides in Beltrami County actually began in 2004. The Red Lake massacre simply exacerbated the situation, Roesler said, resulting in the formation of the Headwaters Alliance for Suicide Prevention. That group included Evergreen Youth and Family Services, a not-for-profit organization that has a "mobile crisis team" and runs a hotline operated by psychiatric nurses for those at risk.

"Each person in our community has a role in suicide prevention," said Stephanie Downey, suicide prevention coordinator for Evergreen. "It's the media, it's neighbors, it's an employer that says 'what's my (human resources) policy for mental health for my employees?'"

From 2007-2011 there were 29 suicides in Beltrami County, a report from the Department of Health found, or 12.2 for every 100,000 people. The majority -- 55 percent -- came at the end of a gun.

Prevention

It's impossible to attribute the increase in suicide rates to any one thing, Downey and Roesler said, but the recession has played a role. Beyond that, access to mental and physical health care, family stress and coping mechanisms all play into what can sometimes be fatal decisions.

Suicide, it seems, is an impossible riddle.

But, Roesler said, "Means matter. If you have a suicidal person in your house, you can take action to prevent access to these means."

A "concerted effort" on the part of community-based organizations in Beltrami County fought back against the deluge of deaths seen in '04 and '05, Roesler said. Non-profits stepped up, mental health treatment was made available for those who couldn't afford it, and word spread. Now, the same is needed for an older generation, struggling under the weight of a recession.

"For working-age adults, the multiple stressors, work, family, physical health, the economy is part of that. ... When you start piling these things up on top of each other, and add some substance abuse, that's a deadly situation," Roesler said.

Roesler, though, didn't hold employers accountable for the stress-related deaths that have increased recently. "That's a policy decision," he said, adding that "it's in the employer's best interest to have a healthy employee."

'The big lesson'

Thompson was a practicing opthamologist for 17 years before joining the City Council. But the disease with which his daughter was diagnosed as a college student was relatively new to him. Sara was bi-polar.

"This bi-polar thing was something that really wasn't talked about in medical school," Thompson said. "It's just one of those big mysteries that's very common. It's a major problem."

Sara was incredibly productive when she was "up," Thompson said, but in her down moments, her depression showed. She talked about suicide numerous times, according to Thompson, but never attempted. Roesler cited Department of Health studies that show those who have attempted to take their own lives run a significantly higher risk of dying at their own hands.

"She'd told us she was going to do it, and we tried to talk her out of it," Thompson said of his daughter. "But she did it anyway."

Thompson stressed that mental health treatment is important for those suffering from bi-polar and other mental disorders, but patients on medications should continue taking them, no matter how they feel.

"The big lesson is keep taking the medications," he said. "The problem is they start feeling pretty good and then it's all over. That just absolutely is a kiss of death."

By the numbers

2007-2011 suicide rates

Beltrami County: 29

Cass County: 14

Hubbard County: 20

Clearwater County: 2

Source: Minnesota Department of Health

Suicide Prevention Week Events

Wednesday

What: "According to Josh," a one-man, 15 character, seven song play performed by New York-based actor, playwright and suicide prevention advocate Joshua Rivedal

When: 8 p.m.

Where: Hagg-Sauer Building, room 100, BSU

Saturday

What: Annual Run/Walk/Skate for Suicide Prevention

When: Registration begins at 8 a.m. with the event beginning at 9 a.m.

Where: Sanford Center

Register in person or online at www.evergreenfys.org

Resources

Mobile Crisis Line for Beltrami, Hubbard and Clearwater counties

1-800-422-0045

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

1-800-273-TALK (8255)

www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

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Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
(218) 333-9200 x343
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