"Break the Chains" Addresses Bullying, Suicide in Small Communities

Mar 23, 2018

Chesney Garnos (far left) encourages students to lift each other up and "break the chains" of bullying and mental illness in their communities.
Credit Jackie Hendry

South Dakota has the third highest suicide rate for young people in the country, and overall suicide rates in the state are on the rise.

One woman from Presho has seen the impact of suicide on small communities first hand. As a student at the University of South Dakota, Chesney Garnos researched suicide and bullying. Now, she speaks to students in schools around the state. 

At the beginning of her presentation, Chesney Garnos asks students to imagine this scenario:

You’re about to catch a volleyball game with some friends from high school in your small hometown. One member of the group isn’t answering his phone, so you stop by his house to see what’s taking so long. You walk inside and see him with a half-empty bottle of vodka in one hand, and a rifle in the other.

Garnos asks if anyone in the room thinks that could happen to them. The Wall High School gym is nearly silent, and only a few hands go up. She says the truth is, suicide could play a role in anyone’s life.

Then Garnos tells the students the example she used happened to her. She found her friend in a moment of crisis and didn’t handle the situation safely. She tells them she managed to get the gun away from her friend…

“I took out the ammunition, I hid the gun in the house, and I Facebook messaged his mom. And I left and still went to the game.”

Garnos says she was lucky. Her friend didn’t turn the firearm on her, and he didn’t try to hurt himself again when she left. But she wishes she had known a better way to handle that situation, and that’s what led her here.

The presentation is called Break the Chains. It started as a class project during her last semester at USD. After suicide took the lives of people close to her, Chesney Garnos wanted to learn about its causes and prevention. She asked a professor to do an independent study on suicide in South Dakota.

“And he was like, ‘That’s a great idea, I think you should,’” she remembers. “And when I started doing research I was alarmed by the rates and how high it was compared to, like, the national average and everywhere else.”

In 2015, South Dakota saw a state record of 173 total suicides. In 2016, it had the 13th highest suicide rate in the nation. Dr. Joshua Clayton is state epidemiologist with the South Dakota Department of Health, and he says those numbers are on the rise.

“The 2017 data is not finalized,” he says, “but what I can say is that we will break that record, meaning that we will have the most suicide deaths in the state recorded in the history.”

And he says the state’s young people are especially vulnerable. In 2016, South Dakota had the third highest suicide rate in the nation for young people 15 to 24.

Dr. Clayton says suicide can result from a wide number of factors.

“But we do know that there’s a strong relationship that youth who have reported frequent bullying are at increased risk of suicide death or suicide attempts.”

In fact, the department began adding questions about bullying to a state-wide student survey. Every two years, it’s sent to randomly selected schools in South Dakota to collect data on student behavior and risks among high schoolers.

“Unfortunately, our 2017 data that we were really hoping to rely on to examine where we’re at with bullying and with our suicide attempts—we did not actually have enough school participation to be able to represent South Dakota in those numbers,” Dr. Clayton explains.

Dr. Clayton says the state Departments of Health and Education are beginning to work on ways to improve response rates for those surveys. But in the meantime, Chesney Garnos is using existing data and her own experiences to help students be more mindful of issues like bullying and suicide.

She’s especially concerned about small communities with limited resources. She’s been asking schools if they have ever hosted speakers on bullying and mental health.

“And most of the responses I got, especially from rural areas, was no,” she says.

Since September, Garnos has visited nearly 20 schools. During her visits, she shares her own experiences. She uses statistics to illustrate this can happen everywhere. And she talks about some of the warning signs of suicide: behavior changes...mood swings...isolation.

And she also leads a few activities.

To show the impact of social media, Garnos lines up volunteers. Each one makes up something mean to say about her online—and as they do, they squeeze some toothpaste out of a tube and onto a paper plate. Then, at the end of the line Garnos has one try to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Of course, no one is ever able to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Garnos says it’s the same as posting something on social media: you can never fully take it back, so be careful.

The final illustration of the day harkens back to the presentation’s name: Break the Chains. Another group of volunteers receives a plastic chain link, and the chain is wrapped around one person.

The chain links each represent something painful. Again, she has each student say something mean about their classmate as they add another link to the chain.

Then Garnos presents them with a challenge: “Break these chains! To lift the weight up from other people around you.”

Then the students make positive comments, removing a chain link as they go. By the end the chain isn’t completely gone, but it’s lighter and easier to bear.

Chesney Garnos says the program has developed in ways she didn’t expect. She wants to register it as a non-profit, and hopes to develop follow-up surveys to send to schools after she visits. She says it’s hard to keep up with traveling as she works two other jobs and prepares to compete in the Miss South Dakota pageant--with mental health as her platform. Still, she says it’s worth it if she can help even one person.

“And that might sound like a low goal,” she says, “but to me it’s not because that’s someone’s life, and that life impacts hundreds of people around them: their family, their friends, their community, their schools. So really that’s the ultimate goal, and I want that to stay the basis of the goal: to help those in need.”

Most of all, she hopes she can encourage young people to reach out to trusted friends and adults for help when they are struggling. She wants to get the conversation started to help break the chain of mental illness in South Dakota’s communities.