South Dakota's youth suicide problem is horrifying


State views

Add youth suicide to the list of topics that should be important to South Dakotans.

It’s up there with methamphetamine addiction, education funding and our nursing home crisis.

Two of the issues – youth suicide and methamphetamine – seem especially difficult to deal with. Money won’t hurt, but there’s no way to know for sure whether it will help or what the best way to spend it is.

That’s why it’s up to us to do the hard work.

You and me. Real people. Family. Friends. Neighbors.

Schools and educators have a role, but there’s nothing that will trump the personal touch. Checking in. Asking questions, even if they are tough.

Plenty has been said and written about the state’s anit-methamphetamine campaign and all of the problems the drug causes. More often overlooked is how big of a problem youth suicide is in South Dakota and across the nation.

Between 1999 and 2016, the rate of suicides in South Dakota increased 44.5%, according to Josh Clayton, state epidemiologist.

Suicides in South Dakota occur, on average, at a younger age than at the national average, he said. Rural areas also have higher suicide rates than urban areas across the country, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

From 2013 through 2017, death by suicide was the second-leading cause of death for people in South Dakota ages 10 to 39, according to the South Dakota Department of Health.

Those statistics should be alarming to all of us. They reflect a real and terrifying problem.

Our youngest citizens are struggling. Sometimes they don’t know or can’t see or comprehend how loved and cared for and valuable they are.

That needs to change. And the work is ours. It’s hard, because sometimes the warning signs of struggling are hard to see.

Let’s start by acknowledging that being a pre-teen or teenager is tough. There is no escape in this day and age. With social media, bullies can track you down anywhere, even at home. The bombardment of bad news and violence is easy to find on every tablet and smartphone in every bedroom. Even the reminders that friends are out having fun while peers are at home feeling uninvited and excluded are hard to avoid because of constant Facebook and Instagram posts. These are dicey and difficult times.

Further complicating matters is that young people have a skewed view of time. Three months to a 13-year-old seems an eternity, a long time to deal with a painful problem. A 50-year-old likely processes that same amount of time differently, knowing things will get better sooner rather than later. That’s the wisdom only age can offer.

The Rev. David Zellmer is the retired bishop of South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He offered this take.

“All the training I’ve ever had, if (a young person is) in a crisis mode, you have to stay with them,” he said. “Once you get them through that, then you’ve got a different animal.”

The tough part for adults is striking the right balance. Expressing concern and care without being overbearing and annoying. Offering support and love without smothering.

The power people described as empaths have – the ability to sense how others are doing emotionally and mentally – is a valuable one, but not everybody has it. So then what? The best answer is to sincerely ask questions and offer support. Communicate clearly and exercise compassion.

Shy of anything else, at least keep this list of resources handy.

Are you struggling or do you know somebody who is? 

Here’s a list to help:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or chat online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Community resources helpline center: 211.

National Alliance on Mental Health Helpline: 800-950-6264.

Never forget there are people who care.

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