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Seminar offers tips for helping veterans suffering mental crisis

The Rapid City Journal - 5/13/2017

Maureen Hopkins' son committed suicide in 2015. Christine Shey understands her pain: Her uncle committed suicide, and she once attempted to kill herself.

Both women shared their stories Thursday afternoon at the "Mental Health First Aid Training: Military Members, Veterans, & Their Families." The seminar, held inside the The Retired Enlisted Association building, laid out a five-step process for assisting people during a mental health crisis.

It also addressed how to help active military members and veterans in crisis, a population that is often averse to seeking help, course instructor Stephanie Schweitzer Dixon said in an interview.

"In the military there's a lot of that worry and stigma about whether or not they should seek help," she said. "They're tough and they don't want to lose their job. There are a whole lot of differences in what they saw in their job and what they experienced."

Schweitzer Dixon is also the executive director of the Front Porch Coalition, which hosted the seminar. The nonprofit focuses on mental health and suicide prevention.

Schweitzer Dixon and the Front Porch Coalition also teach versions of the seminar that target young people, first responders and law enforcement.

The goal, though, remains the same: teaching people to identify the signs and symptoms of someone in a mental health crisis, determining whether they're at risk of suicide or self-harm, and then reacting in a manner that will assist rather than worsen the situation.

"(The goal is) keeping them safe during the crisis and then getting them professional help," Schweitzer Dixon said.

In rural areas or places where professional assistance difficult to get, that becomes even more critical. "When the resources are limited they have to talk to people that they trust," she said. "That's why this training is important."

Staying calm when helping someone in a crisis can, in turn, have a relaxing effect on them. "Anxiety creates anxiety," Schweitzer Dixon said. "If you just slow down and you take a breath it actually helps ease the other person. Silence is OK."

The suicide rate in the U.S. rose by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, to 13 suicides per 100,000 people, according to a National Center for Health Statistics study.

A U.S.Veterans Affairs study into veteran suicide rates in 2014 reported a 32 percent rise since 2001, to 35.3 suicides per 100,000 veterans.

For people like Hopkins and Shey, combating the silence and stigma starts with sharing their stories.

"It's part of my journey of just wanting to learn all I can about suicide," said Hopkins, who volunteered for the Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors team, a group of first responders that offer support to those affected by a sudden suicide. "I just feel like it's kind of this entity, and I just got to stare it in the eye to understand it better, to know it better so that we can help eliminate it.

"The only way we can do that with mental health is for us as a community to be watching out for each other. We need to be able to be open and talk about it."

Shey, who is also a L.O.S.S. volunteer, said eliminating the collective and personal stigma associated with mental disease is just as important. "It's not something that you should be ashamed of," she said. "You should just feel comfortable in your skin. I'm trying to fight the stigma because I do believe that if you really truly want to get better and get the help you can, you don't have to let your issues control you. You can control your issues."

For more information, visit or email Schweitzer Dixon at If you or somebody you know is having a mental health crisis, contact the Crisis Care Center, 121 North St., at 391-4863 or 381-2482. They are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


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