Marcy LaCroix of Bemidji, considers herself a survivor. LaCroix lost a close friend to suicide in high school. Then in 1995, her own family was devastated when her 14-year-old brother killed himself. Ten years later, her uncle killed himself. And just last February, that uncle's youngest son did the same. Those three family members are buried side by side.
LaCroix says she'll never get over the pain.
"If you can think of an emotion, I've probably experienced it -- anger, grief, severe grief, depression, guilt, remorse, anything and everything," says LaCroix.
LaCroix says suicide is the reason why she studies psychology at Bemidji State University. She's also an intern with the newly formed Headwaters Alliance for Suicide Prevention in Bemidji. LaCroix says for too many years, suicide has been a taboo subject. "We need to say the word. We need to say 'suicide.' We need to talk about it," says LaCroix. "We're talking to our kids about sex. We're talking to our kids about drugs. Let's talk to them about our mental health and heal ourselves."
Health advocates have long suspected suicide was a big problem in Beltrami County. A state health department study this summer confirmed just how lethal the problem is. It showed that between 1990 and 2005, the suicide rate for those under age 35 was 21 suicides per 100,000 people. That's more than twice the state average.
The Headwaters Alliance for Suicide Prevention is responding by reaching out to kids in local schools. Rebecca Snyder who coordinates that effort, says students may have gotten a prevention message in the past, but now there's a sense of urgency to open a dialogue about suicide in every classroom.
"We know in four out of five teen suicides that friends knew of warning signs and attempts, but chose not to tell an adult," says Snyder. "We really go in and get it through to them that if they're hearing somebody talk about suicide, to take it seriously."
The state Health Department's report shows the suicide numbers are even more staggering for Beltrami County's American Indian population, which includes the Red Lake Indian Reservation. American Indians accounted for 39 percent of all suicides in the county during the study period. That rate is double that of Indians across the state, and three times the rate of whites in Minnesota.
The Red Lake Reservation was hit hard by a rash of suicides in the months following the traumatic school shootings in 2005. Now there's a new suicide prevention effort underway in the schools. The district added three additional licensed social workers this year and there's a suicide prevention program this month in middle and high school classrooms.
There are efforts outside the schools, too. Several Red Lake mothers who've lost children to suicide have formed a support group for struggling families. Lisa Beaulieu lost her 15-year-old daughter to suicide in 2005, just two months after the school shootings. Beaulieu says the group's goal is to help people get beyond the stigma associated with mental illness.
"It's okay to ask for help and to talk to people," says Beaulieu. "It could be a stigma of not wanting to go to mental health because someone's going to see you and think something is really wrong with you. But, actually, it's just taking care of your mental health. And we all need to do that."
Beltrami County health advocates have no simple answers as to why local suicide numbers are so high. Some point to high rates of alcohol and drug abuse. They say many people are geographically isolated and less likely to seek help for depression. And poverty is a contributing factor, too. Nearly one in four children in the county live in poverty, nearly twice the state average.
Some say there aren't enough mental health professionals to go around. Becky Secore, coordinator of children's mental health services for a collaborative of organizations in the county, says recruiting new mental health providers to rural communities is tough. That means people who need help have to wait in line.
"You truly have to be almost actively suicidal to get those slots," says Secore. "So for those kids who are maybe on the edge of having some serious depression or having a crisis in their family, they might be waiting a couple of months before they get to see somebody."
Funding for children's mental health services is shrinking. In 2004, one federal funding source provided more than $1 million for mental health intervention and prevention programs in Beltrami County. That number has dwindled to less than half.
"We have fewer federal resources for prevention and intervention in Beltrami County than we did when the Red Lake tragedy happened," says Snyder. "I think that would surprise a lot of people. I mean, you would think with all the people that rushed in after the Red Lake tragedy saying how they were going to support us, that we would have at least maintained the same level of funding."
Beltrami County's suicide rate has put mental health professionals in crisis mode, but, for now, their efforts are limited to a shoestring budget.