By Aly Downs | Submitted Photos
If you are like me, you become pretty excited upon hearing that North Dakota ranks near the top of national lists as the “Happiest State” and “Least Stressed State.” However, no matter how high our quality of life may be ranked, my heart sank upon reading the statistics on suicide in the Peace Garden State: our state has experienced the highest suicide rate increase throughout the nation from 1999 to 2016. Nine out of 10 people who die by suicide do actively have a mental health condition at the time of their death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of those who lost their lives to suicide were also under the stress of relationships problems, job or financial troubles, substance use, or physical health ailments.
“Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth and young adults in North Dakota,” reports Alison Traynor, suicide prevention director with the North Dakota Department of Health.
And recently, there has been an increased awareness of North Dakotans in farming communities with suicide rates increasing among this group as well.
Behind the statistics are real people whose lives have been touched by unimaginable loss. Bismarck resident Janeen Norland’s son Josh died by suicide 10 years ago, and as an advocate for suicide prevention, she emphatically believes that people contemplating suicide “do not have the ability to see options outside of taking their life; they just want the pain to end.” Research indicates that people often leave warning signs of suicidal intent, but how often are those signs recognized or even taken seriously? The North Dakota culture typically rewards us for not wearing our emotions on our sleeve, showing resilience during hardships, and possibly keeping quiet from those closest to us even when we are suffering from symptoms of depression, anxiety, or mounting stress.
“If you notice a change in behavior in someone you know, ask directly about suicide or tell someone who will ask the question,” adds Allison.
Bottom line: we need to use our voice and communicate!
When Bismarck mom Karena Lancaster lost her teenage son Trystan to suicide last year, she found that “faith and forgiveness” helps her cope with this unimaginable loss. As a person naturally drawn to help others, Karena believes in the power of sharing her voice to support those who may be suffering.
“I like to share my story and hope that helps others,” Karena says.
Due to the often complex situations leading up to a suicide attempt, it is unrealistic to expect a quick-fix. However, improved coping abilities along with education, the incorporation of positive support systems (family, friends, mentors, support groups), and possible treatments such as medication and counseling make for increased effectiveness to prevent suicide.
The support surrounding suicide prevention in North Dakota continues to gain momentum; there are crusaders across the state who are passionate about living in a world without suicide while first working toward the goal of reducing suicide 20 percent by 2025. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is the nation’s largest nonprofit for suicide prevention; the North Dakota chapter was chartered over a decade ago with a mission to “Save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide.” The group encourages communities as they rally behind suicide prevention.
“We want to create a culture that is smart about mental health and empower people to be suicide prevention advocates in their communities. You can be a lifesaver!” says Samantha Bruers, North Dakota’s Area Director for AFSP.
The AFSP Bismarck Out of the Darkness Walk for Suicide Prevention will be held on the northwest corner of the State Capitol Grounds on Friday, September 14, 2018, starting at 5:30 p.m. Pre-registration is encouraged online at afsp.org/Bismarck with funds raised going toward increasing the number of suicide prevention resources and programs in North Dakota.
Janeen says being involved in the walk is an important part of her healing journey.
“I am surrounded with so many others who understand the unique grief of a death by suicide. Helping others by being there with a hug and a listening ear is the best way to also help yourself. It’s my way of being the voice for my son and so many others who kept silent,” Janeen shares.
Aly Downs is a proud fifth generation North Dakota farm girl, occupational therapist, and advocate for mental wellbeing and heart health. As an ambassador to volunteerism, Aly currently serves as Mrs. North Dakota United States 2018.