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Suicide prevention: Community rallies for support, awareness

BEMIDJI – Beltrami County has the second-highest suicide rate of Minnesota’s 87 counties, according to World Life Expectancy. 

But, in order to address suicide rates, local activists say the public first must be willing to talk about suicide.

“Tomorrow can always be better,” said Barb Bjerke, whose husband of 28 years, Craig, committed suicide in 2003. “No matter what the pain is right now, there are ways to get help. If you can get through that bad, bad moment, tomorrow can be much better.”

The community is invited to mark National Suicide Prevention Week next week with two events, including a Monday evening concert and a Saturday morning run/walk/skate.

“The purpose of Suicide Prevention Week, in my eyes, is that it is an opportunity for our community to participate in awareness of the issue,” said Stephanie Downey, suicide prevention coordinator of the Beltrami Area Suicide Prevention Program through Evergreen Youth & Family Services.

The concert, Saphire’s Courage Campaign Against Bullying, will be 6:30-8 p.m. Monday at The Cabin Coffeehouse. A free-will donation will be taken.

The sixth annual Run/Walk/Skate for Suicide Prevention will begin with a program at 9 a.m. at the Sanford Center. The event includes a 5K run/walk, 10K run or, for the first time, a 10K skate.

Tami Niswander, whose husband, Erik Friborg, committed suicide in April 2011, is a member of both the local roller-derby team, the Babe City Rollers, and the committee that helped plan the suicide-prevention walk/run/skate.

She said opening the event to rollerbladers and skateboarders will help reach the 19- to 24-year-old demographic most affected by suicide.

“We definitely want to bring awareness to all age groups, but we really want to focus on that young male (demographic),” she said.

Anyone interested in registering for the event can do so for $20 beginning at 8 a.m. at the Sanford Center. Proceeds benefit the Beltrami Area Suicide Prevention Program. 

“It’s also a way for people who have lost ones to feel like they can give back and honor their loved one in a positive way and remember them,” Downey said.

Marcy LaCroix lost her 14-year-old brother to suicide in 1995, her uncle in 2005, that uncle’s son in 2008, and her mother’s cousin in 2008.

LaCroix said her experiences with suicide helped shape her as an adult.

“Tremendously,” she said. “Fortunately, for me, it’s been in a positive way. I’ve had to make that decision, that I have to change this into something that is positive for me, that is going to strengthen me, that is going to make it so my kids have something positive to associate with their uncle that they don’t know.”

Daily, she talks to her children about anxiety, depression and the differences between feeling blue, sad and depressed.

“It’s never too early to talk to your kids about what being sad means,” LaCroix said. “It’s OK to be sad, but when does it hit a point that it also is OK to ask for help.”

There were 599 suicide deaths in Minnesota in 2010, according to the Minnesota Department of Health; five were in Beltrami County.

Downey, who has worked with Evergreen for five years, said the community has made progress on suicide prevention.

There now are local crisis-response services provided by mental-health agencies and there also is transportation available for people who need immediate assistance.

But Downey, who also speaks at area schools, said the community needs to continue talking about suicide prevention and foster an environmental where people feel comfortable seeking help.

“We made progress but there still is more work to be done with removing the stigma,” she said.

Bjerke believes that stigma contributed to her husband’s refusal to seek help. Craig was the director of social services at the Bemidji hospital for 26 years.

The night he died, the couple had just finished dinner. Craig had gone into their bedroom. Barb was coming behind him with a load of laundry when she heard the gunshot.

After his death, Bjerke said, several people told her how Craig had helped them avoid suicide.

While he would suggest to others that they go on medication, Craig refused that option for himself, Bjerke noted.

“He really helped a lot of people,” Bjerke said, “but he couldn’t help himself.”

In the wake of his suicide, Bjerke said she searched for a support group but the nearest one was in Duluth. Instead, she read books and visited online forums to try to understand.

About three years ago, she helped found Heartbeat, a local support group for adults who have lost a loved one to suicide. It meets at 7 p.m. the second Tuesday of the month at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center.

“It really does help talking to somebody who has been through the experience,” Bjerke said. “It’s something people need to talk about, to know they’re not alone.”