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West Fargo mourns high school student's death

Justin Olien, a Sheyenne High School student, earned his Eagle Scout in 2014. Submitted photo.

WEST FARGO—This community is in mourning after a Sheyenne High School junior died Wednesday night.

Students were told Thursday, May 19, that Justin Olien, 17, died by suicide the night before.

Olien was a popular student and was heavily involved in activities outside of school. He played on the varsity football team and was in choir and band.

An honor roll student, Olien was recently named one of six finalists for the North Dakota High School Activities Association/Farmers Union Insurance Distinguished Student program, which offers a $500 scholarship to finalists. In 2014, he earned the Boy Scouts Eagle ranking and was a charter member of Troop 246 in West Fargo.

On Thursday, social media showed an outpouring of support for him and his family. West Fargo High Choir members performed a tribute to him during Thursday's class.

" ... this is a devastating loss. Justin was heavily involved and known and loved by many," read a post about Olien's death by Red River Youth for Christ.

West Fargo School District spokesperson Heather Konschak said district staff took very specific, strategic steps to ensure that all students and parents at Sheyenne High School would know that the district was there to support them and help them in any way needed. Counselors were made available and staff was at the school from about 9 p.m. to midnight, Wednesday, May 18 and early Thursday morning, when the district informed students of Olien's death.

"Our goal today was truly about the friends and family that he left behind and helping them," Konschak said.

The district cancelled a Sheyenne Mustangs girls soccer game against Fargo Davies scheduled for Thursday in light of Olien's death. His sister is on the Sheyenne team. A Thursday night orchestra concert was performed as scheduled.

"Kids in general, they can be fragile, and you just want to make sure they know that we understand where they are coming from and we are there for them," Konschak said. "If they are feeling lost or unsure, it was very important today and everyday that we let them know we are there to support them."

Details of Olien's death were not released.

A funeral will be held at 4 p.m. Monday, May 23, at Hope Lutheran Church in Fargo. His family asked that no one wear black, only bright colors.

Visitation will be 5 to 8 p.m. on Sunday, May 22, at West Funeral Home, 226 4th Ave W., West Fargo.

A vigil has been planned to honor Olien at 7 p.m. Friday at the Horace Lutheran Church.

Olien's death marks the third Red River Valley area death by suicide in as many weeks. A high school boy in Devils Lake and a middle school boy on the Spirit Lake Reservation both died of suicide last week. On May 4, a Red River High School senior girl in Grand Forks died by suicide, marking the second teen death by suicide at the school in 2016.

Suicide rates in North Dakota have increased 70 percent in the past 10 years. It is the leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 23.

According to the 2015 Youth Risk Survey, which is taken every two years, nearly 20 percent of North Dakota middle school students have considered suicide in the past year.

About 18 percent of Sheyenne High School students and 11.5 percent of students at West Fargo High School have considered it, numbers that are down from 2013, when 18 percent of Sheyenne students and 20.4 percent of West Fargo High Schools students reported feeling suicidal in the previous year.

Anyone experiencing thoughts of suicide is encouraged to call the North Dakota Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or FirstLink at 211. Both have certified responders who are available at all hours every day of the year.

Sheyenne High School students who would like to speak to a counselor are encouraged to speak with teachers who would make arrangements, but counselors can also be reached by calling the main office at (701) 356-2160.

Warning signs of suicide:

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide:

• Talking about wanting to die.

• Looking for a way to kill oneself.

• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose.

• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.

• Talking about being a burden to others.

• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.

• Acting anxious, agitated or reckless..

• Sleeping too much or too little.

• Withdrawing or feeling isolated.

• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.

• Displaying extreme mood swings.

What to do

If someone you know shows warning signs of suicide:

• Do not leave the person alone.

• Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.

• Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255) or FirstLink at 211.

• Take the person to an emergency room, seek help from a medical or mental health professional or call 911.

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and at CBS in Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

(701) 241-5530
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