Note pad on a table with numerous descriptive words about mental health next to a cup of coffee

Experts spotlight youth mental health, suicide prevention

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(Greater Dakota News Service) Rates of suicide among young people have increased by about 36 percent in roughly the last two decades and the surge has caught the attention of federal policymakers.

The Biden administration has a new National Strategy for Suicide Prevention and a Federal Action Plan, highlighting the need for a coordinated approach to prevention and equity in treatment and research. It follows the Bipartisan Policy Center's launch of a youth mental health task force in January.

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Val Demings, co-chair of the Youth Mental Health and Substance Use Task Force and a former member of Congress from Florida, said in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, last week rural communities face unique mental health challenges.

"For example, having access to care, the affordability of care, removing the stigma," Demings outlined. "You may be in a substandard educational setting. You may also have substance abuse, addiction in the household. And so we have got to, as a nation, deal with the social ills that cause decay in certain communities in the first place."

A big focus of the task force is a link between suicide and increased use of technology and social media. The U.S. Surgeon General said young teens who spend more than three hours a day on social media are at double the risk of mental health struggles, including depression and anxiety.

Technology can also be used to help deliver health care services in rural places. In 2021, the Helmsley Charitable Trust launched a virtual crisis care program in South Dakota, equipping law enforcement with iPads, so they can connect people with mental health professionals by video.

Walter Panzirer, trustee of the trust, has seen positive results.

"We had a 75 percent reduction of transports to the mental health facilities," Panzirer pointed out. "They were able to get care at home, locally; 25 percent of the calls were for youth."

People living in rural places are almost twice as likely to complete suicide than those living in large cities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency said South Dakota had the fifth-highest suicide rate in the country in 2021 at over 200 deaths.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.