SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — According to provisional data released in April from South Dakota Suicide Prevention (SDSP), the state recorded a total of 198 suicide deaths in 2021, the highest amount since tracking has been in place.

A further look at the data shows that 60 of the deaths occurred in the 1st quarter of 2021, with 45 in each of the 2nd and 3rd quarters of the year, and 48 in the final quarter.

The data from SDSP shows that while there have been some fluctuations, the suicide rate in South Dakota has been on the rise since 2011. In 2011, 125 suicides were recorded. The next year, there were 135. In 2015, there were 173, and in 2017, the state hit its previous high of 192 deaths by suicide.

In 2018, 2016 and 2014, drops in numbers from the year before were recorded, though the rate as a whole continued to climb. In both 2019 and 2020, suicide deaths numbered 185, before rising by 13 to 198 in 2021.

KELOLAND News spoke with Erik Muckey, CEO and Executive Director of Lost & Found, a comprehensive suicide prevention organization, to get an understanding of the factors behind this concerning rise in deaths by suicide.

“Within the last few weeks the South Dakota Suicide Prevention executive workgroup released provisional data (Muckey notes that while provisional data is not yet finalized, it is generally considered to be fairly accurate. He also notes that suicide deaths are often under-reported.) — the provisional data showed that in South Dakota, we had the highest number of recorded suicides in state history,” Muckey said.

When it comes to a potential reason for this rise in suicide deaths, the shadow of the pandemic looms large over the data.

“The provisional data we have tells us that suicide rates and death counts were particularly high the last quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021,” said Muckey. “What we can probably deduce from that is there are some pandemic factors in play.”

Among these factors cited by Muckey is the reduction of protective factors against suicide. These factors include social isolation, lack of access to mental health care, a lack of community and even the discussion of mental health being less of a priority due to everything happening in the world at the time.

“You also probably saw an increase in risk factors,” said Muckey. “We’ve seen a lot of data showing up about substance use disorder and the rapid rise in that aspect — you can talk about home or family dysfunction, where you may be forced to be at home in a situation that’s not particularly healthy — you might also look at this in the form of stress or trauma associated with the pandemic.”

The period in which the highest rates of suicide were seen in the last few years, late 2020 to early 2021, was also the period in which South Dakota was experiencing one of its peaks of the pandemic. “You can look at that as a potential impact that would have driven that number higher,” said Muckey.

Though the suicide rate in South Dakota hit its highest point in 2021, the problem is not simply isolated to the most recent years. “The trend of suicide death in South Dakota has been on the rise since 2011, so we can’t discount the fact that there are already pieces in place that were maybe contributing to higher suicide deaths,” Muckey said.

Overall, from 125 in 2011 to 198 in 2021, the state saw an increase in suicide deaths of 58.4%, or 73 additional people killed. The pandemic did not play a role in the majority of those years, but other factors did.

“The leading cause of death in South Dakota for 10-19 year-olds is suicide, and the 2nd leading cause of death for 20-29 year-olds is suicide,” said Muckey. “That’s not a coincidence — a lot of that is something you see nationally.”

Some of the factors in the overall rise in suicides mentioned by Muckey are social media, “not necessarily the tool itself, but the disconnection from community” — and a lack of access to mental healthcare. “We see that frequently on college campuses — there’s a drastic demand for mental healthcare, but not enough services to be provided all around.”

Muckey again also noted the prevalence of substance use disorders, something which he notes the state is attempting to combat in the areas of opioids and meth.

Another thing that cannot be ignored in the conversation surrounding suicide is the degree to which the problem affects South Dakota’s Native American communities.

“Among the stats that we see are tremendously higher levels of suicide in indigenous communities, disproportionately so,” said Muckey. Indeed, looking at suicide rates by county from 2011-2020, the top ten counties with the highest rates are Buffalo (74.3), Todd (53.7), Corson (50.8), Oglala Lakota (48.6), Lyman (44.2), Dewey (43.8), Haakon (36.9), Stanley (36.5), Jackson (33.6) and Kingsbury (31.8).

These counties, with the exception of Kingsbury, are home to the reservations and off-reservation trust land of the Cheyenne River Sioux, Standing Rock Sioux, Rosebud Sioux, Crow Creek Sioux, Lower Brule Sioux, Rosebud Sioux and Oglala Lakota Sioux tribes.

“We may not always be thinking of what’s going on in Corson County or Dewey County if you’re not in that area,” said Muckey, noting the relative geographic isolation of some of these counties. “It’s important for people to know that four South Dakota counties (Buffalo, Todd, Corson and Oglala Lakota) are in the top 1% of suicide deaths in the United States. All of them are in indigenous communities, and American Indian suicide death is 2.5x higher in South Dakota and it’s no secret that so much of that involves geographic isolation — but also the historical traumas that have been experienced by Native American communities, and the ongoing economic factors that plague American Indian communities.”

When it comes to addressing the needs of geographically and economically isolated communities, Muckey encourages people to consider what is available in terms of comprehensive suicide prevention efforts.

“In Buffalo County and some of these other counties we talk about, whether its in reservation country or elsewhere, so much of this is about what are the comprehensive nature of the resources available,” said Muckey. “Comprehensive means everything from mental healthcare certainly, but also things like economic supports — what is actually available to communities, and it may be a case of there being certain shortages of certain elements of a prevention strategy that aren’t there.”

Muckey says that when it comes to ongoing efforts to reduce the overall trend of suicide, it is important to take systemic approaches that focus both on individuals, but also upon real community resources to give people hope, help and the support they need to address suicide ideation.

Lost & Found started out on a college campus. In order to help explain how individual people can help in developing suicide prevention resources, Muckey talked about the first steps and goals of the organization that was founded more than a decade ago.

“Lost & Found’s origins focused on doing more to prevent suicide by connecting youth and young adults not just with education and available resources or where they can seek help, but also [teaching] how to talk about mental health,” Muckey explained. “Especially during Mental Health Month, one of the best pieces of advice and support that Lost & Found can share is something that we’ve created called the Let’s Talk About Mental Health Guide.”

Muckey went on to discuss the importance of being able to have honest and open conversations about things like suicide risk. “If we can better understand our risk and we can take the steps to address that, whether through protective factors like community, connectedness, physical wellbeing or dealing with our risk factors like substance use disorders or mental health conditions — if we have that understanding, we can actually take action — not just to help ourselves, but also to support others.”

The most important thing you can do to help, especially during Mental Health Month, is getting the training you need to be able to help yourself and others.

“If you go to sdsuicideprevention.org, there’s a list of trainings that focus on things like Question, Persuade, Refer training — all the way to Youth Mental Health First Aid or Mental Health First Aid where you’re able to provide immediate support and care to somebody who may be experiencing a mental health crisis,” said Muckey.

These programs are free, and there’s a list of upcoming trainings, as well as a link to request a training.

Additional trainings, especially dealing with youth or young adults can be found on the Lost & Found website, and so can a list of recommended links.

Training and resources can also be found through the Helpline Center, the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board and the Department of Health.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a suicidal crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.