Rapid City Area School District responds to suicide rates with new prevention policies

Question, persuade, refer.

RAPID CITY, S.D. (KEVN) - Suicide rates in the U.S. are at the highest level since World War II.

So it's no wonder that mental health and suicide are at the forefront of the conversation when it comes to educating our kids.

This is the first year that all Rapid City Area School District employees received training on suicide prevention.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in South Dakota for people ages 15 to 34.

"We're that rough and tough, farmer cowboy kind of part of this country that still lives in that mentality that I can take care of this and mental health is like physical health, it's intertwined in the body," said Stephanie Schweitzer Dixon, Executive Director of Front Porch Coalition.

In the Rapid City Area School District, nine students and one teacher have died by suicide since 2017.

"We've had substantial deaths by suicide, and our school district really has been affected over the last two years, and so we thought we need to do something to really focus on suicide prevention to intervene with our students who are struggling," said Sarah Zimmerman, Prevention Specialist for Rapid City Area Schools.

In response, the district adopted a new suicide prevention policy and hired Zimmerman as their prevention specialist.

"All the staff members in the Rapid City Area Schools including cafeteria staff, custodial staff, transporation staff, and teaching staff have all been trained in the same method of suicide prevention programming, and I think that uniform approach is going to be really helpful to our district," said Kelli Muck, counselor at North Middle School.

That suicide prevention method is known as QPR meaning: question a person about suicide, persuade someone to get help, and refer someone to the appropriate resource.

"I think that we're moving in the right direction as far as not just schools but communities being able to address the mental health needs of the students that live there and the adults that live there, so I think every effort that we make is a step in the right direction," Muck said.

The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1800-273-TALK, but what if it was as easy as dialing 988?

The FCC proposed shortening the number from its current 10 digits to 988, much like 911, it's easier to remember while in crisis.

"Just shortening and having a number like 988 for someone to talk to if you're having some passing thoughts of suicide, thoughts of suicide every day but no plan, is a phenomenal idea and I think it will also increase the number of people in crisis in that immediate, imminent crisis who will call because they'll remember that number, and it will save more lives," Schweitzer Dixon said.