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Letter: Education, dialogue best defenses against suicide

A lot has been written about the life and death of actor Robin Williams. Eulogies paint the picture of a gifted, kind, generous and special person.

In 2011, 39,518 people took their own lives. I don’t know their names, and I don’t have any pictures, which is a shame because each one of them was so beautiful. I can tell you that every one of them was someone’s child. Many of them left children behind. Some of them were children. Some were doctors; some were students, cashiers, office managers, retired millionaires and teachers.

Seven hundred and eighty-nine of them lived in North Dakota or Minnesota. One or some of them might have been a neighbor, friend from high school, nephew or husband. All of them were loved by someone who aches for them every day.

There is nothing we can do to bring those people back. But we can tell their children, spouses, siblings and friends that we will make changes so that no one else dies by suicide. We have to promise ourselves and each other that these deaths are not in vain, that we will no longer talk about mental illness or suicide in hushed tones. We will educate ourselves about the early warning signs of mental illness.

Depression and other forms of mental illness often start in childhood and adolescence. Numerous studies illustrate that the earlier a person is treated, the more successful the outcome will be. The trajectory of a child’s life can be changed with mental health supports.

The Stephanie Goetz Mental Wellness Initiative and our action project, Imagine Thriving, are working with school districts, businesses and individuals to provide students and their families with resources, education and tools to ensure that every child has access to mental health care if they need it.

The results of the 2013 North Dakota Youth Risk Behavior Survey administered to Fargo-area ninth- through 12th-graders illustrate how many children are struggling.

  • 22.6 percent of North Dakota ninth- through 12th-graders have “been so sad or hopeless every day for two or more weeks in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities” in the last 12 months. 
  • 14.7 percent of students seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months. 
  • 10.9 percent of students actually attempted suicide one or more times during the past 12 months. 

We need to know and understand that mental illness is a disease. Like cancer or diabetes, it’s a flaw in chemistry not character. Mental illness is not synonymous with weakness.

We need to know and understand that the very nature of mental illness makes it difficult for a person affected by it to reach out for help. Reach out to them.

We need to know and understand that mental illness is treatable.

The best suicide prevention is early detection and intervention. Not only to save lives but so that people live lives of quality rather than struggle.

If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out. Friends, family, school guidance counselor and clergy can be great sources of support. Family doctors can provide referrals to the appropriate mental health care provider. You can call 211 to find out about local resources.

If you are someone is feeling suicidal call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, answered by local staff.

Tow is executive director, Stephanie Goetz Mental Wellness Initiative & Imagine Thriving of Fargo-Moorhead.