Suicide affects everyone: Working together is key to help

Death by suicide not only affects the person's family and friends--it affects the community. Law enforcement officers are typically the first to respond to the call of a suicide or an attempted suicide. They have to be prepared for anything. And ...

Andrea Rusk
Andrea Rusk

Death by suicide not only affects the person's family and friends-it affects the community.

Law enforcement officers are typically the first to respond to the call of a suicide or an attempted suicide. They have to be prepared for anything.

And it's been a tough year in the lakes area with suicides. Baxter police officers responded to three suicide calls this year: A 49-year-old man died Jan. 10 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the public access at Whipple Beach in Baxter; a 77-year-old Brainerd man died Feb. 14 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at Bill's Gun Shop & Range in Baxter; and a 16-year-old Baxter teen died Feb. 21 at Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd from suicide.

"It's concerning when you have what appears to be several death by suicide investigations that come within a two-month time period," said Jim Exsted, Baxter police chief.

"Our role in law enforcement is when we do see an alarming trend like this developing that we do everything we can to stop it and turn it and make it not a trend," Exsted said. "Anytime you have three ... calls in that short amount of time-there is definitely a potential for a trend to be developing. Our responsibility is to step up the prevention efforts. ... We want to help the mental health experts to drive the education and awareness piece."


Exsted said law enforcement is always working on stepping up efforts to do everything they can to assist people suffering from depression or mental illness. Exsted said the Brainerd lakes area is fortunate as it has resources available for people who need help, such as the Crisis Line.

"We are not the experts in the mental health field," Exsted said. "We rely heavily on the professionals in the community."

Officers are trained on the first day on the job on how to handle any death investigation, whether it be a self-inflicted, a homicide or a traffic death, Exsted said. Officers are not only trained on how to professionally handle a call, but also given skills and resources on how they may handle their own well-being. Each officer has to figure out their own way to deal with the crisis calls, and there are people who can help.

Law enforcement also has a team of professionals-Crisis Stress Management Team-who debrief officers when they have a high-stress call, a call that goes beyond what they see on a normal basis. Exsted said this team is available for all emergency response roles, including 911 dispatchers, paramedics, emergency room personnel and firefighters.

Officers have to be prepared and each crisis call is different. Officers are trained to deal with anything that may come their way, Exsted said.

"There are many times when people are not ready for help," Exsted said.

"Any training we have done in recent years has a mental health component to it as it is at the root of all of these calls. We always hope when we get a call that we get to the individual before it is too late."

Capt. Scott Goddard of the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office said in 2017-18, the county received an average of nine calls a month from people calling for help or family members calling about their loved one having suicidal thoughts. Goddard said these figures account for just those living outside of cities in the county, not in cities like Baxter or Brainerd.


In 2017, the sheriff's office responded to 16 people who attempted to take their lives and five suicides. From Jan. 1 to March 13 of this year, four calls pertained to people who attempted suicide, but no calls involved a death.

"We have seen a gradual uptick," Goddard said about the number of calls sheriff's deputies have been on for people with mental illnesses or those who have suicidal thoughts. "Unfortunately, it is common to see a number of these calls over the weekend."

"I don't know why there are more calls. I'm not sure if its because there are more avenues for people to share information through social media, where people have more ways to share their comments they make. This may be adding more stressors in people's lives. Especially with kids."

Goddard said a few years ago he was talking with students in the Pequot Lakes School District-where his two children attend school-and there were some mean comments said to another student. He said then if you add a bullying atmosphere and if this student already has depression or another mental health issue, these "comments do not help."

"Suicide hits everyone hard," Goddard said.

BHS dealing with suicide

Brainerd High School lost two students this school year to suicide. Recently, a 16-year-old student allegedly threatened to shoot up the school. Students have had an emotional school year and this past spring break-March 12-16-came at a perfect time to give students and their families some time off.

"The past couple of weeks have been very difficult at Brainerd High School," BHS Principal Andrea Rusk stated in an email to all BHS families before spring break. "We grieve the recent loss of our Warrior student, while also remembering the death of another Warrior from the fall.


"In the midst of this our students experienced the fears of threats to the safety and security of our school. No students should have to experience the grief and fear these events have provoked at our high school.

"My communication today is to share that in the face of great adversity, and strong emotions, our students have been amazing. They have come forward to provide ideas, support and initiate action so that we can avoid these awful events in our future. Our students have demonstrated kindness, compassion and care for each other during theses times and you should be proud.

"As a staff we are committed to provide support and safety each day for our students at Brainerd High. We are working with our students and groups within our community to address the needs for mental health support and suicide prevention. As we work together to address these needs your help and input is critical. This work needs to take place in the schools, the home, our neighborhoods and community.

"Thank you for providing the strong foundation of support for your student at home. Through challenging times it is imperative we work together to provide the best educational environment for our students."

Rusk and Brainerd Police Officer Troy Schreifels, who serves as the BHS liaison officer, sat down with the Dispatch before spring break to discuss the efforts the school has taken in suicide prevention and awareness.The high school already had a strong support staff of multiple counselors in-house and through Northern Pines who help students with any mental health concerns. BHS also has service groups, such Student Council, Key Club and Interact Club organizing events around important topics to students, such as suicide awareness.

Rusk said it will take everyone-the school and the community, which includes the faith community; the medical community; and the city, county and state governmental officials-to make a difference. Rusk said efforts have been made and the community has identified steps to move forward and to implement a plan.

One of the resources students in the community have to turn to is Brainerd Area Youth for Christ or BAY Ministries for short-which has been a part of youth ministry in the Brainerd area since 1998.

According to the BAY Ministries website, it has joined forces with the national recognized suicide prevention program, Yellow Ribbon, of Denver.

"Now fully credentialed by Yellow Ribbon, our presentations are motivated by a theme of encouragement and hope. We address the issues of teen depression and suicide by speaking in schools, churches and community service organizations," BAY Ministries reported.

Rusk said both area students who took their own lives were popular, successful, well-liked and well-loved.

"There is nothing stereotypical," Rusk said of suicide. "It crosses all different groups. ... What we see, and it is a great challenge, is the kids who have really good support in their life and they're unable to think there is another alternative. They may have really good support in their life ... and are successful in school and they still make that decision to end their life. They have not developed the skills or the recognition that there are other ways to get out of this. Again we talk about our resilience.

"We need to help them work through the pressures of the day because if we don't they will go into adulthood and struggle. They have to learn how to be resilient and that is a struggle we face."

Rusk is a strong believer the way the adolescent brain develops is key in why students, who are struggling, may be more vulnerable to having suicidal thoughts. The adolescent brain develops slower, which makes it difficult for them to comprehend situations when thinking about taking one's own life, especially boys.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens 15 to 19 years old, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage of high school students who reported seriously considering suicide increased from 14 percent in 2009 to 16 percent in 2011.

Inside the walls of BHS, Rusk said, "Having Troy (Schreifels) here is the best support system here. He has a great relationship with the kids. This is a huge benefit for our school. He is perceived as a lifter."

Schreifels works with students on a day-to-day basis and helps them deal with a variety of teenage issues they may be having during the school day. Schreifels offers students a "text tip" -students may text 218-821-2258 if they are in crisis or need help. He receives about four or five texts a month that are suicidal in nature, he said.

Schreifels said 80 percent of the students who come through his door are girls. He said girls are more forthcoming about sharing their issues than boys. Boys don't like to share their feelings and have the gender stereotype of keeping their feelings inside-that they are tough and don't need help. Schreifels said this is changing.

"The pressures sometimes can be overwhelming," Schreifels said of students. "There could be other factors going or like they may have some clinical depression or have some built-in anxiety and then it all comes crashing down on them. ... For adults forever is forever but for these kids, they haven't gone through some of these life experiences and it may not be forever."

Schreifels has not only helped students at the high school with mental health issues, but he has seen it firsthand with his family.

"My daughter Serena has been dealing with mental health issues with depression and anxiety," Schreifels said. "What I went through as a father is an experience I never want to relive ever again in my whole entire life. She is on medication that helps her stabilize enough so she can work on those coping and life skills. She was diagnosed with anxiety and clinical depression and is on (a medication), but you still feel the anxiety and some days there are triggers."

Schreifels said his daughter and her friend named their depressive feelings to help them cope. Everyone has a way to try to cope with a mental illness, he said, and what works for one person may not work for another. Schreifels said with students he works on building relationships and if they don't want to talk about their issue, they don't have to. When they are ready, he is there for them. He also informs them of other resources or people so if they don't want to talk to him, there is someone else they can talk to.

Engage with us

Hear the voices of many of those featured in the series on the DispatchCast, the Brainerd Dispatch's podcast. The podcast is available on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Alexa, Stitcher, Podbean-just search for DispatchCast-or go to for a link at the bottom of the Dispatch webpage.

Use #BDReachesOut to continue the conversation and connect on social media via Twitter and Facebook.

Get help

If in a crisis or in need of help-or know of someone who is-call the Crisis Line and Referral Services at 218-828-HELP (4357) or 800-462-5525. The Crisis Line is answered by local, trained volunteers 24 hours a day. It is a free, anonymous and confidential service.

Help is also available through texting. People who text MN to 741741 will be connected with a trained counselor who will help defuse the crisis and connect the texter to local resources. The service helps people contemplating suicide and facing mental health issues.

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