2018-06-14 / Voices

Suicides Matter – Even When the Victims Aren’t Celebrities


Anthony Bourdain took his life last week. The sharp talking, street-savvy New Yorker described as “a gifted chef and storyteller who used his books and shows to explore culture, cuisine and the human condition” was beloved by millions around the world, myself included.

Tony was my alternative “food guru” when I wasn’t watching Bobby Flay show us all how to properly cook a burger. And he’ll be missed, not just for the insight he offered into all things culinary, but for his ability to teach us how food can bring us together as a family, regardless of our culture.

Yet, Tony wasn’t the only suicide victim last week.

Eight-hundred sixty-four people in the U.S. joined him in his choice of death over life. A similar number make the same decision every week across the nation for a total of some 45,000 suicides annually.

In France, where Bourdain died, someone commits suicide every hour. While the World Health Organization reports that around the globe one person takes their life every 40 seconds. Another one left us as you were reading this column.

Staggering figures, no?

Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about such issues here in South Dakota, because we don’t have any problems. Right.

I’d laugh if the issue wasn’t so tragic and if that wasn’t actually the general mindset of so many here in the “S.” tate of “D.” enial, not just regarding suicide, but on any issue that might link us to the negatives the rest of the world deals with.

And though I hate to break South Dakota’s “we’re the smilin’est, friendliest, most wonderfulest place around” bubble, reality – the “r” word here that no one likes to use – has reared its nasty presence once again and shown the truth of life on the Northern Plains.

While a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates the rate of suicide has risen 25 percent across the U.S. since 1999, South Dakota placed 6th highest on the list with a 44.5 percent increase.

Moreover, South Dakota ranked 13th in the country in suicides in 2016 (in rates per 100,000) with 168. The suicide epidemic on reservations across the state certainly is a factor here, but United Health Foundation figures indicate that 41 percent of those deaths were among non-Natives.

That doesn’t lessen the seriousness or severity of the suicide epidemic on reservations in South Dakota, but it should serve as a wakeup call for the state’s naysayers who keep their heads in the sand as problems arise – when they’re not pointing the finger of blame for any issue at Native Americans.

The stark reality of suicide is that it can happen to anyone, anywhere, of any race, nationality, cultural background or economic status. It doesn’t just happen to internationally known celebrities. Nor is suicide any less tragic when the victim’s face isn’t known to millions, or when they leave behind a small gathering of family and friends in a reservation village, a ranching community on South Dakota’s rolling prairie, or in Rapid City instead of legions of fans around the world who’ll wonder “just what happened here?”

Type “Why do people commit suicide” in Google, and you’ll come up with 19,600,000 results – though I can guarantee you that none of them will be able to offer you an answer. That’s because each situation that leads to this tragic result is colored by a myriad of life circumstances as unique as the individual who experienced them.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t each offer assistance to those in need, or that we can’t each ask for help if we’re that individual contemplating ending our life.

As for circumstances on the reservation versus off, Native Americans are at least wise enough to accept that there’s a problem which needs to be addressed, while most non- Natives living in the land of “Great Faces, Great Places” prefer to maintain a “Carry on, Earl. They’ll get over it.” attitude – right up to the funeral.

In discussing the issue with a representative of an area suicide prevention and post-vention group several years back, the serious issue of denial in South Dakota was listed at the forefront of the problem.

Whether in the village of Kyle or the town of Hot Springs, the key is to recognize that every life is important.

A teen in need on the Pine Ridge Reservation may not be as glamorous as a renowned chef with an addiction problem, but the sanctity of their lives is an exact parallel.

Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio producer who lives in Hot Springs. He is a contributing columnist to the Lakota Country Times and former editor of The New Lakota Times. He can be heard on National Public Radio and National Native News Radio. Jim can be reached at

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