Congresswoman Kristi Noem’s Weekly Column: Don’t Wait

noem press header kristi noem headshot May 21 2014Don’t Wait
By Rep. Kristi Noem 

Mary Ellen Dirksen grew up in what most people would consider a pretty typical Midwest family.  Her close-knit family of four looked picture perfect from the outside – and for the most part, it looked just as perfect from the inside.  But a little more than a decade ago, Mary Ellen’s big brother – a handsome, intelligent guy who loved basketball and hot fudge sundaes – died by suicide.

South Dakota has one of the nation’s highest suicide rates, and in recent years, the state has seen the number of attempted suicides increase considerably.  As one of the state’s leading causes of death, most families or communities, to one extent or another, have felt the blow of suicide.  

Despite knowing how far reaching suicide is, we too often lean heavily on narrow stereotypes to determine the type of people most likely to be impacted by mental illnesses.  But mental illness and suicidal thoughts can afflict anyone, which is one of the reasons I sponsored legislation designating September as National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.  

In her book, “The Swing Set,” which describes the grief and healing she experienced after her brother’s death, Mary Ellen explains: “I had known [my brother] wasn’t dressing well, that he looked unshaven, that he was irritable and that this was causing turmoil in our family.  I had known he wasn’t leaving the house, that he didn’t take interest in life like he used to, and that his worldview had become pessimistic.  But I had never really known anyone who suffered from depression, actual depression, especially not someone handsome and capable like my brother.” 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness adds to the list of characteristics Mary Ellen saw in her brother, pointing to increased alcohol and drug use; talking, writing, or thinking about death; and impulsive or reckless behavior as other warning signs. 

While anyone can be impacted, I also recognize that in recent years some communities have been affected more than others.  I’ll never forget sitting across the table last fall as a young tribal member told me they had lost all hope.  Suicide had taken their sibling as well as more than one of their friends – all before their high school graduation.  This individual too had thought about it.  Within weeks of that meeting, we had new provisions in a mental health bill that’s now passed the House directing more resources into tribal suicide prevention programs.  It’s an epidemic that needs to end.

The same is true within veteran communities.  Nearly two dozen Americans lose their life to suicide daily.  More resources have been dedicated in this area as well and we continue to invest in learning more about the relationship between military service, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries, and suicide.  But none of it is being done fast enough. 

“I wish I had known how difficult it is to live with depression and that a person can’t simply ‘snap out of it,’” wrote Mary Ellen, who now helps other families struggling with depression and grief in Sioux Falls and beyond.  While we can’t walk someone else’s journey, we can help each other navigate through – and that’s all a person can ask. 

If you or a loved one is experiencing any of the warning signs, please use this as your motivation to get help.  If it is an emergency, dial 911 immediately.  The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) – is also open around the clock for help.  Don’t wait to call.


2 Replies to “Congresswoman Kristi Noem’s Weekly Column: Don’t Wait”

  1. Troy Jones


    As one who encounters parents who lose a child by suicide, the vernacular within those who experience suicide or work to prevent suicide has become clarified and the term “committed” is increasingly not used for a number of reasons. Another term that is being used less is “suicide survivor.” Same with the phrase “attempted suicide” because of how related it is to “self-harm” like cutting oneself and the difficulty distinguishing what actually occurred.

    Just to be clear its not about political correctness, psychobabble, etc. Its related to communicating within the community and to the public at large accurately regarding suicide and having precise conversation and clear understanding for those who have to deal with the grief and aftermath of suicide.

    I’m not an expert on this so please consult a professional if this is something for which you have a question. Suicide is a growing epidemic in our nation. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US from which 42,000 people die every year. It is just behind drug overdose (47,000 people per year). Similar to the inability to distinguish between self-harm and suicide, it isn’t always easy to distinguish if the death from taking excessive drugs was intentional or unintentional.

    I guess my point is what was once considered simple is more complex (or inter-related) within certain mental health issues (drug abuse, self-harm, and suicide) and increasingly there is more cross-discipline analysis, diagnosis, and treatment strategies.

    As one Dr. of Psychology or Psychiatry said to me, “Within alcoholism/drug abuse, there are two distinct subsets. One has developed an addiction but has no desire to die. The other has the same mental health problems as those who die by suicide or self-harm. Each one needs a distinctly different treatment protocol.

    That said, the same Dr. said grief counseling for parents who lose their child to drug overdose (whether intentional or unintentional) and those who lose their child to suicide have different grief counseling needs. The difference is those who lose their child to drug abuse often have been dealing with the illness in their child for years while the parents who child dies by suicide have grief complications related to guilt “because they think they could have or should have done something.”

    Anyway, thanks for asking the question and giving me the opportunity to comment about this and I hope I shed at least some light (as imperfect as my rambling may be) on the issue. I appreciate Rep. Noem’s efforts on this.