‘I want to speak life into people’: State takes all-in approach to suicide prevention

Second day of conference focuses on affirmation, intervention, support

By: - Friday August 11, 2023 4:19 pm

‘I want to speak life into people’: State takes all-in approach to suicide prevention

Second day of conference focuses on affirmation, intervention, support

By: - 4:19 pm

Attendees at the 2023 South Dakota Suicide Prevention Conference take video of an inspirational message for those in need, at the direction of keynote speaker Kevin Hines. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

Attendees at the 2023 South Dakota Suicide Prevention Conference take video of an inspirational message for those in need, at the direction of keynote speaker Kevin Hines. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

SIOUX FALLS — Roslyn Ward lost her 35-year-old son to suicide last October.

The loss turned the Lemmon mother into an advocate for suicide prevention, and she founded an organization called “Hope … Your Life Matters.” 

Keynote speaker Kevin Hines hugs Bridget Marshall of Rapid City during the South Dakota Suicide Prevention Conference on Aug. 11, 2023 in Sioux Falls, SD. (submitted photo)
Keynote speaker Kevin Hines hugs Bridget Marshall of Rapid City during the South Dakota Suicide Prevention Conference on Aug. 11, 2023, in Sioux Falls. (Submitted photo)

Ward was on hand Friday in Sioux Falls for the South Dakota Suicide Prevention Conference to gather ideas, inspiration and information she can take back to her small town on the North Dakota border. 

At this point, she takes calls from families, tells her story and encourages others to learn more about how to talk about suicide. The group has partnered with Three Rivers Mental Health in Lemmon. Ward has held raffles to support Three Rivers, and the organization has helped her craft and deliver suicide prevention materials and bring in speakers.

But Ward’s go-to move when she meets someone isn’t to lead with statistics or strategy. Instead, if they’re willing, she takes their hand, slides a rubber “Hope” band around their wrist and starts to speak.

“I look them in the eye and I tell them, ‘This is in remembrance of my son, who died by suicide. He had the kindest heart. And I know that he would like you to know that you are amazing, that you’re good and that your life matters. What you do matters. And always, always remember that we all have a purpose and a reason to live. Never forget that ever,’” Ward said. “That’s what I do. Because I want to speak life into people.”

More partners in more places

People like Ward who speak words like that are key players in the state of South Dakota’s approach to suicide prevention.

At this point, the strategy could be described as everything, everywhere all at once.

Matt Althoff, Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Social Services. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Matt Althoff, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Social Services. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

Crisis response centers, training in and outside state organizations, and mobile crisis outreach have ramped up since 2020, but recent efforts have drawn on people and groups outside the mental health profession:

  • The Department of Social Services now trains its frontline economic assistance staff in crisis first aid. The eight-hour trainings include talk of suicide resources and role playing to help frontline workers respond when a Medicaid or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applicant shows signs of crisis.
  • The DSS and state Department of Health offer the same training to Emergency Medical Technicians and law enforcement, especially in rural areas where EMTs or police might be the first to respond to a cry for help.
  • The agencies aim to boost peer-to-peer support by educating young people and others on what to ask or say to prop up their peers in times of need – and on who to call in their area if things get out of hand.
  • The 988 suicide hotline, used by thousands of South Dakotans since launching last year, will soon get a boost from a grant to train counselors in culturally relevant approaches to helping Native American callers.

It’s all part of a multi-pronged approach built on the notion that suicide prevention – and mental wellness in general – can’t be tackled effectively by counselors and state employees alone, said Matt Althoff, South Dakota’s DSS secretary.

“What we’re after is the salvation of lives,” Althoff said. “There are absolutely different ways to get to all of those lives.”

‘Notes to Self’

A new marketing campaign called “Notes to Self,” revealed by Althoff on the second day of the suicide prevention conference, leans in to the notion that everyone has a role in suicide prevention and mental wellness.

The campaign’s taglines, “you matter – no matter what,” “you belong here,” or “you matter to someone’s mental health,” all tie to that premise. The ads and educational materials offer basic guides for deeds, words and habits that help people stay aware of their emotions, triggers and needs.

‘Rethinking Suicide’: Expert urges South Dakota audience to challenge assumptions

Althoff presented a television ad Friday that followed a farmer moving though his day, finding notes of affirmation along the way. He first sees one on the coffee pot in an empty kitchen early in the morning. He grabs his coffee and heads out to his tractor. The video cuts away to a shot of the farmer in the cab, where he opens his lunchbox to see a note that reads “we’re proud of you.”

The ads are meant to be an entry point to a DSS Behavioral Health toolkit. Beyond affirmations, the tools for educators and the public include postcard-sized forms to create gratitude lists or lists of people to call for support, exercises on how to verbalize and manage grief and advice on how to create “code words” for children to use in a call or text if they feel unsafe. A “circles of control” postcard encourages people to list their stressors and sort them into things that can be controlled, influenced or not controlled by the person writing the list. 

“It’s a way of saying ‘let’s talk about our mental health in a way that’s supportive,’” said Tiffany Wolfgang, head of behavioral health for the DSS. “We wanted to talk to people before they’re in crisis.”

Speaker: Outreach, affirmation save lives

Friday’s keynote speaker, Kevin Hines, preached the gospel of support and outreach just after Althoff’s presentation. Hines jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge at age 19. Today, nearly 23 years later, he’s become a suicide prevention advocate, author and speaker.

Kevin Hines, author and motivational speaker on suicide prevention. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Kevin Hines, author and motivational speaker on suicide prevention. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

Wandering through the crowd with a wireless microphone, in a T-shirt that read “Be Here Tomorrow,” Hines said the courage to show concern can save lives.

“Are you OK? Is something wrong? Can I help?” Hines said. “They were the words I desperately needed to hear the day I found myself standing on top of that bridge, believing beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had not one other course of action but to die by these two hands from lethal, emotional pain.”

Against the odds, Hines survived. Doctors and paramedics told him they’d never pulled a living person from the water below the bridge after a jump.

He still struggles with suicidal thoughts, he said, but the statistical rarity of his survival prompted a pledge “to never die by my hands.” When suicidal thoughts come, he finds a mirror and says the same thing.

The crowd joined him in repeating an affirmation.

“My thoughts (my thoughts!) do not (do not!) have to become (have to become!) my actions (my actions). They can simply be (they can simply be) my thoughts (my thoughts).”

Hope for all-hands approach

Wolfgang’s voice cracked with emotion as she took the microphone after Hines’ motivational stemwinder. The behavioral health director, noting the value Hines placed on hearing affirmations, encouraged attendees to fill out one of the “You matter no matter what” postcards on the tables to be distributed around the state.

“Be that someone to care for someone else,” Wolfgang said moments before closing the conference at noon on Friday. “Write a note to someone. Leave it in a box. Inmates, kids in care, individuals in a psychiatric unit – they need to know someone cares.”

The needs are great in South Dakota. Suicide rates have grown faster in the state than elsewhere in the country, and the issue is more pronounced in Native American communities. The number of students experiencing bouts of depression and seriously pondering suicide have jumped alongside that growth.

The day before Hines’ talk, Wolfgang and Althoff told South Dakota Searchlight that the recent past and the widening net of mental health resources offer reasons to be optimistic.

Crisis units meant to house and stabilize people in the short-term have proliferated. Pivot Point opened in Rapid City last month. Avera St. Luke’s in Aberdeen is adding five crisis beds to its existing 10-bed mental health unit. Lewis and Clark Behavioral Services in Yankton is adding beds to its facilities for the same purpose. 

Tiffany Wolfgang, Director of the Behavioral Health Division of the South Dakota Department of Social Services. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Tiffany Wolfgang, director of the Behavioral Health Division of the South Dakota Department of Social Services. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

The DSS officials also pointed to mobile crisis teams, which have been available for a decade in Sioux Falls and are now accessible in some form across dozens of South Dakota counties. In rural areas, law enforcement can reach a crisis counselor via telehealth during a mental wellness call. 

A fact sheet offered at the conference noted that virtual crisis care was used 481 times in 38 South Dakota counties between 2021 and May of this year. Seventy-two percent of the people who received it stayed in their homes after the visit.

There are efforts afoot to bring those services to more remote areas through a pilot project involving first responders, community mental health providers and law enforcement in northeast South Dakota, Wolfgang said, and similar efforts are underway for Charles Mix and Union counties.

Further expansion of such programs to rural and tribal areas will depend on continued collaboration with local organizations and with local law enforcement, who are often the first and nearest responder in a crisis in remote areas of South Dakota, Althoff said.

In some areas, he said, a family doctor or local counselor might be available to take on the role of crisis response. Others might benefit from telehealth. Tribal communities might already have or want to work with culturally aware responders who could offer to smudge (burn sage to carry prayers to the creator on the smoke) with a person in crisis. 

“It’s the kind of thing that really needs to be sort of a ground-up approach, married with statewide resourcing,” Althoff said. “Us trying to impose a resource on every community isn’t going to work.”

 

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

MORE FROM AUTHOR