On December 2, 1997, a 15-year-old shot and killed himself. This young man became the 11th adolescent (ages 12-23) to take their own life in Pierre, SD in less than three years. Ellen Lee, a community member and mother of teenagers, decided to seek out about a half a dozen people from various segments of the community to address the problem. However, by the time the first meeting became a reality, almost 50 concerned citizens were in attendance. From that beginning, the Pierre Community Suicide Prevention Committee has addressed the problem of youth suicide, primarily through awareness, asset-building and community involvement.
Awareness was one of the early issues that had to be addressed by the new committee. The reoccurrence of youth suicide in Pierre was well known in the community; however few people discussed it officially. The Committee decided it would be necessary to bring the issue to the public. This was accomplished by opening advertising meetings, the use of public service announcements and a continuing presence in the media. Since becoming vocal about their struggle, Pierre has been featured in publications such as the New York Times and Teen People Magazine, as well as NBC's Today Show, In the Mix, the PBS teen-based program, and featured on South Dakota Public Radio.
Cooperation was another early issue that had to be addressed by the committee. Through the work of the Committee, various entities were able to partner with each other to address the issue. Among them were the school system, medical and mental health services, law enforcement, state agencies, media, advocacy services, violence centers, religious groups and concerned citizens. The approach was multi-faceted incorporating professionals, volunteers, parents and students.
Some specific accomplishments of this community working together to deal with a problem include establishing The Crisis Room to place suicidal people in a “safe room” in a hospital rather than jail, creating The Crisis Line—a 24-hour help hotline, sponsoring education problems to help youth deal with depression and a Crisis Management Team to meet and discuss options after a suicide attempt.
The Community Suicide Prevention Committee has not ended the problem of youth suicide in Pierre; however, it has been an example of effective problem-solving. In the 20 months that this 100-member strong, all-volunteer group has been engaged, no other teenager has committed suicide in Pierre.