The ongoing mental health crisis in rural America is nothing short of an epidemic. On farmsteads, on reservations, in our schools, and in our homes, we are seeing an alarming uptick in those thinking about or attempting suicide.
According to a recent study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, North Dakota saw a 58 percent increase in the rate of death by suicide between 1999 and 2016- the largest statewide increase in the country. Additionally, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in North Dakota across all ages, as well as the 2nd leading cause of death for youth.
Over the last few years, Cindy Miller has witnessed that disturbing trend firsthand in North Dakota. As the executive director of First Link- an organization that answers phone calls on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline- Cindy has heard from a rapidly growing number of North Dakotans who feel they are alone, confused, or helpless.
In 2016, First Link volunteers fielded just over 2,500 calls. But in 2017, they received more than 6,500 calls-a 160 percent increase.
These calls are more than just random figures. They are cries for help from our loved ones, neighbors, and colleagues.
In a state where we pride ourselves on our willingness to lend a helping hand and take care of each other, why are so many feeling backed into a corner with nowhere to turn?
We need to do a better job of pooling our resources, putting our heads together, and figuring out why this is happening. And we need to build a robust, long-term strategy in our communities that significantly lowers the number of North Dakotans we are losing to this preventable epidemic.
On World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10th, I held my Summit to Stop Suicide alongside over 100 fellow North Dakotans in West Fargo. My mission that day was to raise awareness about this crisis, provide support to survivors, and educate our friends and relatives about the prevalence of suicide in our towns. And to help in this effort, I gathered a panel of local, state, and national mental health experts to engage in a comprehensive discussion about recent research into why this epidemic is happening too often in rural areas- and to offer new ways to assist those struggling with suicide.
Among those in attendance at my Summit were law enforcement officials, health care professionals, mental health advocates, post-9/11 veterans, teachers, and students. As the event continued, we broke off into smaller breakout sessions, where the key topics of prevention, community engagement, survivor support, and preventing suicide for youth, adults, and veterans were discussed.
Some of our conversations were hard, many of them were sad, and all of them were incredibly personal. But all of these discussions motivated me to keep fighting in the U.S. Senate to decrease the stigma surrounding mental illness and focus resources in areas that desperately need them, like across rural America.
I'd like to personally thank all those who participated in my Summit to Stop Suicide. Your willingness to take time out of your day to address this challenging topic makes our communities stronger and safer. And I'm so proud of the nationally-recognized activities of our North Dakota advocates to provide survivor support and to raise awareness- all to prevent one more heartbreaking death.
As you're reading this, you should know that there are so many North Dakotans who need us. Maybe they don't think they're valued members of our communities, or maybe they just don't know where to go for help.
But fighting this epidemic isn't just the job of mental health professionals or experts alone. To tackle this urgent problem and to strengthen our resiliency, we must commit to a community-wide approach. If the outcomes from my Summit are any indication, I know we can effectively use the diverse skills and backgrounds of our community members to help finally turn the tide in the battle against suicide.
And if you're someone who needs help, please call the suicide prevention lifeline anytime at 1-800-273-8255 for free, 24/7 confidential support.
Heitkamp represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.