Number of deaths by suicide rose in January in Minnehaha County

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KSFY) - The Helpline Center of Sioux Falls and the Minnehaha County Coroner are alarmed by a recent rise in deaths by suicide during the month of January.

Minnehaha County Coroner, Dr. Kenneth Snell MD, said that there were nine deaths by suicide in January 2017, the highest number he's ever seen in his six years as coroner here.

"Normally for Minnehaha County, we, on average, have about 25 to 26 cases of deaths related to suicide each each year," Snell said. "And we've never seen more than five in one month. We hit five early on and then the number started to continue to increase which raised concern."

The recent rash had Snell and others at The Helpline Center of Sioux Falls questioning what could be behind the deaths. Snell said he was encouraged that the number of suicides in February was back down to just one, which tends to be more of a baseline.

Still, the January numbers prompted Snell to want to do some research about deaths by suicide in Minnehaha County, compared to the rest of South Dakota, as well as the rest of the county. He recently found some research assistants to help them with his study.

National statistics show South Dakota was tied for seventh for the highest rate of suicide in 2016. In 2015, the state was 14th, which staff at The Helpline Center called, "concerning."

The Helpline Center and Dr. Snell held a joint press conference on Thursday to raise awareness about the issue. They believe South Dakotans still have a large stigma around mental health and suicides and wanted to get ahead of the numbers, to try to prevent as many deaths by suicide as possible for the rest of the year and going forward.

Snell said, oftentimes, suicide comes as a shock to families.

"We tend to see cases of the families who weren't aware that this person was suicidal," he said.

He explained that raises questions like, "what does it look like to be suicidal?" and "what resources are available to that individual and their family?"

Some of Snell's research will also be to study what resources are available both for South Dakotans across the state, and particularly in Minnehaha County, to make sure those resources are performing as best as possible.

Barbara Bettelyoun, Suicide Prevention and Postvention Director at The Helpline Center, said that white males in particular are a demographic that has been struggling with suicide across the state. They've created a new public service campaign targeting that demographic to let them know it's OK to ask for help.

"Everybody across every class, across every gender. everybody could potentially suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives," Bettelyoun said.

Bettelyoun said there are number of warning signs that can tip you off to whether you should be concerned for yourself, or for a friend who might be exhibiting them.

"Always trust that intuition," she explained. "If we think that somebody might be in a situation where they feel trapped, or like there's no way out, or that we're worried they might be contemplating suicide, we don't wanna wait."

Bettelyoun explained one of the hardest things for people who are concerned about a friend or loved one, is that they're worried the person might become angry with them for confronting the issue, but she said, it's usually just the opposite.

Research shows that those contemplating suicide tend to be relieved when someone reaches out to help them, rather than become upset or enraged.

She said starting the conversation is key.

"Let them know that you care about them, [say] 'look I want to have this conversation with you it's a little difficult -- I now, but the reason i'm asking you is because I really care about you.'"

If you're contemplating suicide or believe a loved one is, you can call 211 in South Dakota, or call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-237-TALK (8255) for help. Forty of South Dakota's high schools also participate in a text line program for help. Those students can text "ICARE" to 898211.