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Reaching out: Local, national programs work on suicide prevention

Runners take off from the start of the 12th Annual Run/Walk/Skate for Suicide Prevention at the Sanford Center in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer) 1 / 2
Margot Kelsey, a mental health and addiction advocate in Bemidji, talks with the Pioneer about suicide and mental health issues. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer) 2 / 2

BEMIDJI -- Mental health and suicide remain difficult subjects for many to discuss.

But through a local event held Saturday and a national campaign, advocates are hoping to not only help people become more knowledgeable on the topic, but more open to helping others who face these issues, too.

On Saturday, people in Bemidji participated in the 12th annual Run/Walk/Skate for Suicide Prevention and the current week is dedicated to suicide prevention. The latter campaign, organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, originated in 1975.

Suicide rates continue to climb, both nationally and regionally.

“A few years ago, Beltrami County was No. 1 in the state for suicides,” said Kelly Brevig, the suicide education coordinator for Evergreen Youth and Family Services in Bemidji. “We have dropped in the most recent data from 2016, down to No. 3, but it still tells a story that we have a big problem here.”

Those 2016 numbers, compiled by the Minnesota Department of Health, lists 745 deaths from suicide in the state. Of those deaths, 111 were Minnesotans between the ages of 10 to 24.

For Beltrami County and nine surrounding counties, there were a total of 49 suicides in 2016.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate in Minnesota has increased by 40.6 percent over an 18-year period. Nationally, there were an estimated 45,000 suicide deaths in 2016.

“There’s not one singular cause for suicide,” Brevig said. “Think of it as a bucket of water. That bucket is filling and filling, where it might be related to chemical use, depression and trauma. It gets compounded. Then, there can be just one thing to add a last drop causing it to overflow. There’s always so much more going on that leads up to suicide.”

“The biggest misconception for people is that it’s a choice,” said Margot Kelsey, a mental health and addiction advocate in Bemidji. “We as a society need to understand that these are diseases and your brain chemistry changes. We need to understand that.”

Opening dialogue

To address the problem, Brevig said the first step is making the subject more open for discussion.

“It’s something that people often keep hidden and don’t talk about. There are a lot of things that go with it. Shame, anger, fear and sadness,” Brevig said. “It’s also a very short gap between someone having thoughts of suicide and the act of dying by suicide. It’s a very impulsive act, often, there’s not as much thought in between. But, if we can get in between there during that time period, there’s a better chance to keep a person alive. A way we can do that is to reach out and talk more about mental health.”

Margot Kelsey, a mental health and addiction advocate in Bemidji, talks with the Pioneer about suicide and mental health issues.That’s why the Headwaters Alliance for Suicide Prevention has started a campaign called Make It OK.

“It’s about making it OK to talk about mental health and gives tips on how to talk about mental illness,” Brevig said.

For Kelsey, the path to becoming an advocate on the subjects and talking about them openly is because of her willingness to share her own experiences with suicide and mental health treatment.

“Becoming an advocate was out of necessity,” Kelsey said. “From dealing with my own mental health and not being afraid to talk to people about it, I’ve been put into that role.”

Kelsey’s own story of living with mental illness began in her youth, at the age of 10.

“If a friend of mine didn’t call me when she did, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” Kelsey said. “I had everything planned out and was in the process of executing it. I was feeling very trapped in my own head, and felt like there was going to be no hope for the rest of my life. Thankfully, my friend did call me and I have very good parents for support. I was able to tell them after that happened and I began seeing a counselor.”

However, challenges still existed for Kelsey moving forward.

“At the time in the 80s, the stigma around mental health was so bad, and society was telling me I was bad,” Kelsey said. “So, at 15, I began drinking, because I was just trying to ease the pain and it was a coping mechanism.”

Today, Kelsey is sober and continues to fight for better mental health and addiction care. Her willingness to do so is based not only on her experiences, but on what her friends have also gone through.

“Unfortunately, along the way, I’ve had friends dealing with mental health issues and they have taken their own life. Even though mental health treatment is getting better, there’s still so much stigma underlying that we as a society hold,” Kelsey said. “People living with mental health issues still need more help.”

Suicide prevention strategies

The Minnesota Department of Health has created the statewide Suicide Prevention Plan of 2015-2020. Included in the plan is a series of goals for the state in order to reduce suicides.

The goals include:

  • Supporting healthy and empowered individuals, families and communities to increase protection from suicide risk. Strategies for the goal include integrating suicide prevention into the values and culture of communities while also increase education and knowledge of warning signs.
  • Coordinating the implementation of effective programs by clinical and community service providers.
  • Promoting suicide prevention as a core component of health care services.
  • Increasing the timeliness and usefulness of data systems relevant to suicide prevention and improving the ability to collect that information for action.
  • Sustaining suicide prevention efforts, by monitoring the plan’s implementation while securing additional funding.

At the local level, one of the steps has been creating a mobile crisis unit. The unit, run by Sanford Behavioral Health, offers mental health services and support 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The unit includes a team of mental health professionals and practitioners who’re able to respond to behavioral, emotional or psychiatric situations that would likely result in significantly reduced levels of functioning.

“They come to the home or a mutually agreed upon location. That way, a person doesn’t necessarily have to go to the emergency room. It helps because sometimes, people wait a long time before they reach out to get help, and then when they do, there can be a weeks-long wait,” Brevig said. “That’s when a mobile crisis team can help. There is no cost, either, as it’s funded through grants. So they make it as easy as possible.”

Another initiative is taking place with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. According to Karen Anoka, Leech Lake behavioral health case and program manager, the tribe began a new program in response to increasing suicide numbers.

“It has been an issue that we’ve seen rising for the past four years especially,” Anoka said. “For Leech Lake, we had a Zero Suicide Team in our health division formed earlier this year. The effort is for us to collaborate with other suicide prevention teams to try and pull together our resources. We are all working together to find the best way at dealing with this issue on the reservation.”

Data from the CDC shows that suicide disproportionately affects Native Americans and that the rate has increased since 2003. Additionally, information from the Minnesota Department of Health shows that from 2009-2013, the age adjusted rate of suicide for Native Americans was 17.2 per 100,000. The number was followed by whites at 12 per 100,000, Asian/Pacific islander at 7.9 per 100,000 and African American at 6.9 per 100,000.

For more information on the Evergreen Youth & Family Services Suicide Education and Awareness Program, visit https://www.evergreenyfs.org/html/services/suicide-education-awareness.html.

For additional information on National Suicide Prevention Week, visit https://afsp.org/campaigns/national-suicide-prevention-week-2018/.

Crisis telephone helplines

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line: 741-741
  • Veterans Crisis Line: (800) 273-8255,press 1
  • The Trevor Project Lifeline for LGBTQ: (866) 488-7386
  • Sanford Behavioral Health Mobile Crisis Response Services: (800) 422-0045
Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

(218) 333-9791
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