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Communities in Crisis: Avera Health and Department of Justice Tackle Addiction, Suicide

Jackie Hendry

The rates for both suicide deaths and drug overdoses are highest in rural America, and those statistics continue to rise in South Dakota. On Thursday in Sioux Falls, Avera Health and the Department of Justice held a conference to help community members respond to the ongoing crisis. 

This is the fifth year that Avera and the DOJ have partnered for a conference on a particular topic. U.S. Attorney Ron Parsons says this year’s theme suggested itself.

“Almost all of the crime in South Dakota has some connection to illegal drugs," he says, "whether it’s because someone is trying to steal or burglarize in order to get money to buy illegal drugs, or because they’re dealers themselves.”

But Parsons acknowledges that holding drug dealers accountable won’t solve the nation’s drug addiction crisis. He says overdose death rates in South Dakota are rising along with suicide rates, and a partnership with healthcare professionals has never been more important.

More than 400 people attended the Addiction and Suicide: Communities in Crisis Conference. Panel discussions included a law-enforcement perspective on the drug abuse epidemic, suicide prevention in tribal communities, and resources for addiction and mental health treatment.

Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf gave the keynote address. He began abusing prescription opioids from 

Credit Jackie Hendry
Keynote speaker Ryan Leaf says educating community members is a necessary part of responding to a community crisis.

surgeries to self-medicate depression, and his addiction landed him in prison before he sought recovery. Leaf is from Montana and understands small town life.

“Sometimes the escapism of a larger community allows for you to be a little, I guess, disconnected to what’s really going on," he explains. "I think when you’re in small towns like this it’s all about community and that’s the important part of it.”

Leaf says educating communities about the nature of addiction is key. Avera psychiatrist Dr. Matthew Stanley agrees. He emphasizes that mental health problems and addiction are not just results of poor choices.

“I think when you hear a story it kind of pulls the pieces together for those of us who don’t hear that all the time. They’re very interrelated, very powerful and very potent illnesses," says Dr. Stanley.

The goal of the conference is to empower average individuals to recognize symptoms of these issues and available resources. U.S. Attorney Ron Parsons hopes all attendees can consider ways to reach out to community members before the accident, arrest or suicide attempt.