Forum Editorial: North Dakota needs a Vision Zero initiative to prevent suicides. Here’s how we can start.

More people die by suicide in North Dakota than in highway fatalities. A lot more. We have a Vision Zero initiative to reduce highway deaths. We urgently need that approach for suicide prevention.

Editorial FSA

Nolan Wilson was known, as his mother remembers him, as a “laughing, smiling, joking, helpful, amazing boy.” He was a fifth grader at Fargo’s Clara Barton Elementary School who wanted someday to join the army.

“He had plans. He had things and ambitions,” his mother, Shushanna Perez-Noriega, said of her boy.

Thursday, Jan. 26, started as any other weekday. Nolan left for school “laughing, giggling, joking, walking with his friends.” Then that evening, after playing video games, Nolan locked himself in his bedroom and took his life .

He was a tender 11 years old. What dark stew of torment could drive a young child to take his own life? That’s a disturbing question we need to devote deep and considered thought in trying to answer.

Unfortunately, researchers have found increasing suicide rates among children aged 5 to 11 years old in the United States. The Child Welfare League of America reminds us that suicide, in fact, is the eighth leading cause of death for children aged 5 to 11.


Risk factors include mental health issues, previous suicidal behavior and trauma as well as peer, school or family-related problems, according to research findings published by JAMA Network.

Trauma. One in four child suicide victims had a history of trauma. That was the case for Nolan, whose father was killed in 2018. He had been close to his father, and received counseling for the loss.

Suicide in North Dakota remains stubbornly above the national average. Between 2020 and 2022, total suicides in the state ranged from 140 to 166, with each year surpassing the previous year.

As reported in a special series by The Forum , North Dakota saw the nation’s largest increase in suicides, 58%, from 1999 to 2016.

More people die by suicide in North Dakota than in highway fatalities. A lot more. Over the last three years, highway deaths hovered at 100 to 101 deaths. And the state is making a concerted effort to reduce those numbers, through the Vision Zero initiative.

We need a Vision Zero initiative to make a systematic and sustained effort to eliminate suicides.

The first step to solving any problem is to better understand it. That’s what House Bill 1039 seeks to do. It proposes to create a suicide review commission that would meet twice-yearly to investigate suicides and issue annual reports, findings and recommendations.

Dr. Mary Ann Sens, Grand Forks County coroner and professor and chairwoman of pathology at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Science, is a strong advocate for the commission.


In her more than 40 years, she’s seen an alarming increase in the number of suicides — and a trend toward younger victims.

In 2022, North Dakota hospitals reported 837 suicide attempts, or an average of more than two a day, according to Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo, a sponsor of the bipartisan bill. Fortunately, she notes, suicide is preventable.

The estimated cost of the proposed commission is a trifling $15,000. It would operate much like established commissions that investigate domestic violence deaths, deaths of children, drug deaths and maternal mortality.

We need to do what we can to understand why people — even children — take their lives so we can improve efforts to prevent these tragedies

On Feb. 10, Nolan Wilson’s family should have celebrated his 12th birthday. Instead, they held a celebration of life potluck dinner. No family should have to do that. We need a Vision Zero suicide prevention plan.

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