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.