Mental Health

As suicides rise in southeast Minnesota, mental health specialists seek to promote a message of hope

A smiling woman.
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ROCHESTER Before becoming a suicide prevention coordinator, Josh Jensen was a teenager who struggled with depression, feelings of hopelessness, and traumatic conditions that he now helps others struggle through as a mobile crisis supervisor.

As a child, Jensen was raised in a tumultuous home by a mother who suffered a head injury in her teens. Her stepfather was a kind and generous man who helped Jensen’s mother cope and regulate her behavior.

While returning from school one day, Jensen’s biological father pulled him aside and told him that his stepfather had died from an injury sustained from a suicide attempt.

When he was 16, Jensen attempted to take his own life. He is grateful to be alive.

Like many people, I didn’t want to die. What I wanted was for my pain to end. I felt things weren’t going to work out, Jensen said.

Now married with two children, Jensen uses his lived experience as a platform to spread the message that, however bad things may seem at any given moment, life can and will get better. Moving forward for some can mean imagining a better day than the day before.

It is a message of hope and faith in the future, confirmed by his own life. It’s a powerful message, and needed more than ever, as red flashing red flags raise alarms of a mental health crisis both locally and nationwide.

The crisis is reflected in the number of suicides in Olmsted County.

Mental health has been identified as a top priority for each of the 10 counties that make up southeast Minnesota. The challenge stands out in Olmsted County.

Last year, an average of 25 residents of every 100,000 died by suicide in Olmsted County. That’s nearly double Minnesota’s rate of 13.9 people per 100,000 and the national rate of 14.1, said Laura Sutherland, adult mental health coordinator of Olmsted County Adult and Family Services.

Mental health experts aren’t sure why Olmsted County’s suicide rate is so high.

Today, both the Zumbro Valley Health Center for which Jensen works and the National Alliance on Mental Illness Southeast Minnesota plan to host a suicide prevention event in the near future.

We want to change the narrative about mental health, but also suicide more specifically, Jensen said. How can we help those who are grieving? How can we encourage people to get help and fight stigma? This is the purpose of the symposium.

As the community liaison for Zumbro Valley, Jensen’s job is to teach people how to recognize potential suicide warning signs, how to ask people if they are thinking about suicide, and how to get the person to seek help.

Zumbro Valleys mobile crisis team served approximately 380 people last year, a solid increase over the past year in helping people de-escalate and connect them to resources. Both the Southeast Regional Crisis Center and Olmsted County Diversity Equity and Community Outreach teams, embedded social workers in law enforcement units, have seen an increase in crisis calls and mental health assessments.

Experts say there is no single factor to explain the phenomenon or the increase in suicides.

Some blame the pandemic, but many experts note that suicides among young people had been on the rise for years before COVID-19 hit with school stress, social media and guns as potential factors, according to a study. The pandemic has not created the problems. He added to them.

Indeed, suicides had been declining among young people since the late 1990s. But the researchers found that the suicide rate among 13- and 14-year-olds nationwide doubled from 2008 to 2018, rising from about two deaths per 100,000 teens in 2008, to five per 100,000 a decade later.

Experts agree that social media is one of several contributing factors to the problem. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were launched between 2004 and 2006, just a couple of years before suicides among young people started to rise, followed by very popular apps like Instagram and Snapchat.

Social media makes bullying worse, exposes kids to negative messages, pushes them to compare themselves to others, and often stares at them on their screens instead of real life.

When you look at things on social media, social media life isn’t real life, Jensen said. “I think we have a hard time recognizing that.

The onset of the rise in youth suicides also coincided with the economic downturn and housing crisis in 2008. This put pressure on parents and the pressure that was communicated to children.

The researchers also found that young teen suicides increased during the school year and decreased during the summer, suggesting that school stress may be a factor.

According to the Olmsted County assessment, adults with disabilities, single adults, and non-heterosexual adults were more likely to report having depression.

County officials say the intervention is critical to helping people who are experiencing emotional distress or a suicidal crisis.

Jensen said people often give some kind of clue, be it verbal or behavioral, that they’re under mental duress, but it can also be ambiguous and hard to spot.

Sometimes, we don’t want to burden the people around us. And so sometimes, we keep things to ourselves, Jensen said. We are very cautious about how we portray our mental health and what is going on in our lives.

Jensen said it’s best to err on the side of caution and be direct with the person, such as Are you thinking about ending your life? o Have you had thoughts about suicide? Too often the question is phrased in a way that elicits a desired negative response, such as You’re not thinking about suicide, are you?

Maybe a parent knows their child is struggling. Maybe there’s a divorce going on. Perhaps the child was bullied or lost a friend, Jensen said. So there’s a number of things going on. You can recognize the pain these things bring. And then you also ask, Hey, sometimes people who are going through this and this, they can have suicidal thoughts. I wonder if you feel this way too.

Olmsted County is also highlighting and developing resources that can support people.

  • In 2021, the Southeast Regional Crisis Center opened. Located at 2121 Campus Drive SE, the property has a restaurant-like dining room, garden, and homey feel. Funded by 10 counties and the Mayo Clinic and Olmsted Medical Center, the center is open to anyone in southeast Minnesota. This is a place that anyone from any of these 10 counties can walk in 24/7 and say, “Hey, I’m not doing well.” I need some support.’ And they will get it.
  • A person suffering from mental health issues can also be connected to a crisis counselor by dialing 988. They will listen, support the caller and refer the person to appropriate resources.
  • NAMI Southeastern Minnesotas website includes a calendar containing many support groups and educational classes available online. These range from support groups for individuals dealing with co-occurring disorders, such as mental illness and substance abuse, to skills-based groups to help build resilience.

  • NAMI also offers help in the form of peer support specialists. These are people who, in some cases, are recovering from a diagnosis of depression and have been trained to support others. They have peer support specialists who will work alongside people who are struggling and will really be there with them, Sutherland said.
  • A statewide online resource called Wellness in the Woods offers a hotline that people can call and talk about literally anything. You don’t have to say you’re invoking a mental health crisis. Someone might call because it’s really just that night. Someone has died and they are sad, Sutherland said.
  • In the past two years, social workers have been inducted into local law enforcement in both the Rochester Police Department and the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office. The teams include trained social workers who know resources that can help an individual in need.

We will never have enough therapists. And there will always be some people who just won’t go to the doctor, Sutherland said. That’s why so many resources are invested in this, because it has been identified as a priority.

A smiling woman.

Laura Sutherland, Olmsted County Adult Mental Health and Human Services Program Coordinator.

Contribution / Laura Sutherland


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