Suicide is not a pleasant topic. It is a trammeled subject in polite conversation; a personal scar born of knowledge the name of whom is seldom spoken. More than 41,000 people kill themselves annually in the U.S., but more than 1 million people attempt suicide. Thirteen years ago, Barnes County had the highest suicide rate in the state, and for eleven years Debbie Anderson has tried to lower that number to zero.
Wellness in the Valley is the program Anderson runs through CHI Mercy Health, and she is dedicated to the program which is dedicated to suicide prevention. “Thirteen years ago we received a Health Resources and Service Administration grant,” said Anderson. “There were many suicides in Barnes County, but the real impetus was a man holding his family hostage and ultimately ended his life. We were able to get this started with the five-year HRSA grant.”
Wellness in the Valley began with three full-time employees, and by its third year had trained nearly 3,200 people in suicide prevention and awareness training. Today, the only employee is Anderson, and the program is funded through CHI Mercy Health. A condition of the HRSA grant was that “Wellness” could not charge for services. Health and Human Services, the granting agency, thought that businesses would keep the program running.
“Funds are drying up,” said Anderson. “Mercy tries to fund this, but community support has fallen short due to economic difficulties in our community. Other causes have taken suicide prevention’s place, so instead of the $5,000 grants we once got, we may get only a few $500 grants. But Mercy’s fighting to keep this alive. Keith Heuser’s fighting to keep this alive because there are no other behavioral health services in Valley City that can offer the service in the community that we offer.”
Anderson, however, seems inexhaustible working more hours than possible and staying on-call for interventions or counseling. She has, through “Wellness,” provided over 62 unpaid counseling sessions; taken part in 48 immediate threat suicide interventions in the last twelve months; taken part in two cancer groups; two depression groups; conducted two “gatekeeper” (interventionist) trainings; and two Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST). And she has given the teachers in the Valley City School District their mandatory two-hour state-mandated suicide training. She’s also a resource for the police and fire departments.
One of the most important tasks of her work through Wellness in the Valley is her concern for the families of suicides. They go through a very difficult time, and she offers help if they need. “I contact them, and I send the families a book from the American Society of Suicide Prevention,” she said. “It’s called ‘After Suicide Loss.’ And I enclose a card with my name and number.”
The big event and fundraiser for Wellness in the Valley is the annual Out of Darkness Walk. This year’s walk is October 10, 2015, at 12 p.m., the same day as the Dakota State University-VCSU game and on the VCSU campus.
“The students and faculty are really involved,” Anderson said. “I hope this will fire up the community again, too. We have 109 regular donors to ‘Wellness,’ and I hope this will help because the college students are very excited and working hard. I don’t have many community businesses involved with the walk, but I hope that when the community sees all the college students they’ll want to get involved again, and help Wellness in the Valley and Valley City State University help save lives and families.”
For more information about the Out of the Darkness Walk, or Wellness in the Valley, call 701-845-6436, or log on to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention AFSP.org/walk.