But central SD, Hughes County, had it worse in the 1990s

Area residents concerned that suicide is on the rise may be on to something – South Dakota’s statewide suicide rate for the period from 2007 through 2011 is up from similar periods in recent years, a state statistician’s look at the past 20 years of data suggests.

However, despite area residents’ concerns that suicide rates are climbing in central South Dakota, data suggest the suicide rate in Hughes, Hyde, Lyman, Stanley and Sully counties was actually higher in the periods from 1997-2001 and 1992-1996 than in recent years.

That’s according to an analysis by Mark Gildemaster of the South Dakota Department of Health’s Health Statistics Office.

And it’s far too soon to say whether the number of suicides that South Dakota has seen already in 2013 will signal a spike in the data or will level off as the year continues.

The Capital Journal asked Gildemaster to look at the data for the past 20 years because residents in central South Dakota are talking about what seems like an unusual number of suicides starting Jan. 1, including cases in Onida, Fort Pierre and Pierre.

Gildemaster looked at suicide data for the United States, South Dakota, central South Dakota, and Hughes County.

“The ‘rate’ is the crude death rate due to suicide per 100,000 population,” Gildemaster said. “I combined years for the less populated areas due to the small numbers and in order to produce more stable rates.”

Here’s what he found:

South Dakota had a total of 616 suicides in the period from 2007-2011, or 15.2 per 100,000 people. That rate is higher than for the previous three five-year periods since 1992.

In each of those periods, South Dakota is also higher than the U.S. as a whole, which had suicide rates in the neighborhood of 11 or 12 per 100,000 in the years Gildemaster looked at for comparison.

But in Hughes, Hyde, Lyman, Stanley and Sully counties, taken as a group, the period from 2007 through 2011 is 13.6 suicides per 100,000 population. That is lower than the 17.9 per 100,000 that the region saw in 1997-2001, or the 17.5 the region saw from 1992 through 1996.

And in Hughes County, taken by itself, the suicide rate of 17.6 per 100,000 people in the period from 2007 through 2011 is a decrease from the period from 1997 through 2001, when the rate was 19 per 100,000.

More serious in some age brackets

For nine of the 11 years from 2000 to 2010, suicide was one of the top 10 causes of death in South Dakota, and it actually rose from the tenth-leading cause of death early in the century to the ninth-leading cause after 2004. There were 139 cases of suicide in 2010 – the most the state has seen since the new century began.

However, the data are hiding an ugly secret. In 2010, for anyone under age 45, what the data calls “intentional self-harm,” or suicide, is actually the second-leading cause of death to South Dakotans. It’s second only to accidents for people in that age group, said Barb Buhler of the state Department of Health.

Professor Gerard Jacobs of the Clinical Psychology program at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion said the most vulnerable age group for suicide is even more specific.

“From high school graduation to the mid to late 20s is by far the greatest risk we see,” Jacobs said.

But Jacobs adds that most people are not vulnerable for long.

“Research indicates that most folks who are suicidal are only suicidal for a very short period of time. So if you can help them through that difficult time, you may be genuinely saving their lives.”

Jacobs said though people sometimes shy away from discussing suicide openly for fear of putting the thought into someone’s head, that’s not a real fear.

“Most people by the time they are adults have thought about suicide,” Jacobs said. “It’s not a rare thing. It’s an option we think about as human beings. The key is to help people realize there are better options.”

Jacobs noted that although statistics indicate that 80 percent of those who complete a suicide give some indication beforehand, that also means that 20 percent have not told anyone that they are considering suicide.

Jacobs said providing a kind of “psychological first aid” and helping connect people with trained people who can help is a key part of dealing with the danger of suicide.

“I think things like that are the key, recognizing when people are in psychological distress and reaching out to them and promising to be there for them during the difficult times.”

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