Special Report: Suicidal Thoughts Resulting in “The Final Journey”

Contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

LAKE COUNTY, Minn. – It’s one word surrounded by stigma and often never discussed — Suicide.

Nationally, the number of people taking their lives continues to dramatically rise year-after-year.

So how do the numbers break down locally? The number of suicides reported along the North Shore of Minnesota have spiked over the past ten years.

Many people have come from the Twin Cities Metro area, or even out of state.

“In 1999 we ended up with three, and since then it’s at least one a year if not more. It’s been up to five in one year,” said Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson.

Johnson is no stranger to the North Shore of the great Gitche Gumee.

“It’s a beautiful location, beautiful view,” said Johnson.

Countless nooks and crannies encompass his county, from the Canadian border to the quaint communities of Two Harbors and Silver Bay.

“There’s a requirement now that our officers do have mental health training and more mental health training than ever required before,” said Johnson.

Over the past 14 years of Johnson’s career, the natural beauty of the shore hasn’t changed, but the national mental health crisis is washing ashore.

“What I think is that these folks are distancing themselves from where they’re at, where their problems are at and/or from the people who are going to recognize that,” said Johnson.

Johnson is referencing the dozens of people who have ventured north on their final journey.

“I think this affects our responding people, the responding officers,” said Johnson.

A grim reality outlined by data collected over the course of nearly three decades.

19 suicides by folks residing elsewhere have been reported in Lake County since data was first collected nearly three decades ago.

“We have people that will call and say hey there’s a vehicle parked here,” said Johnson.

This prolonged sign of solitude, prompting residents in the area to alert authorities with the hope of saving a life.

“It takes our rescue members, we have a volunteer rescue squad, ambulance service because we need to be able to be prepared to look for them to begin with,” said Johnson.

Multiple resources racing against time once a routine missing person’s report is filed.

“Whenever you can get them to talk to somebody, it’s a first good step toward saving them,” said Johnson.

But this is not always the light at the end of the tunnel.

“Dawn was a person of causes, everything from working in the inner city of Minneapolis, to the Little Earth,” said Claire Stolee, a resident of Andover, Minnesota.

Stolee and his wife Sandy recently experienced the harsh reality of suicide just a few short months ago.

“Probably the thing that made her most special was her faith,” said Stolee.

The setting to the Stolee’s story, taking place at Palisade Head just north of Silver Bay.

“It is our first time up here since leaving after the search was called off,” said Stolee.

The Stolee’s daughter, Dawn, had a plan. It’s one they believe began taking shape back in 2008.

“Dawn left an obituary; she left the detailed plans for a memorial service,” said Stolee.

This past Christmas Day, the Stolee’s received word their daughter most likely had gone through with her suicide plan, leaving many unanswered questions back on this beautiful earth.

“We don’t know why the North Shore. We do know she loved the area. She and her rescue Pit Bull Naomi would come up here and camp when she just needed some time to herself,” said Stolee.

But on this trip, Naomi would not come with. Only Dawn, along with a final letter to her parents, and her final thoughts surrounded by the serenity of the shore.

“She was a basketball player; she was an athlete, that was her passion,” said Stolee. “She was just tired and couldn’t fight anymore.”

This sweet, caring, compassionate soul, taken too soon due to a battle with mental illness.

“We definitely don’t have answers,” said Stolee.

The family, sharing their story with the hope of helping others experiencing struggles with mental health, or possibly an individual going through the same aftermath.

“The one thing that has helped us is not to be closed and hold it in to yourself. There has been such incredible support,” said Stolee.

According to records, over the past 27 years, 53 people have taken their lives in Lake County. Suicide is the tenth ranking cause of death in the United States. In Minnesota, it ranks the eighth leading cause. Death by suicide sits at number nine in neighboring Wisconsin.

“Often time’s suicide can be associated with stress and changes and feeling hopelessness. We’re experiencing a lot of that. There’s a lot of stress, financial issues, and changes happening and that can lead to feelings of hopelessness and that there’s no other way out,” said Alli Pikul, Child and Family Program Manager at the Human Development Center in Duluth.

Pikul aims to help with her words and a wealth of wisdom in the mental health field.

“Our role is really to be of assistance in helping a person get themselves there,” said Pikul.

She has a goal of getting help to those in need; those on the verge of being gone too soon.

“Talking about suicide, talking about depression and mental health is so important. It’s a way we can eliminate people feeling isolated in what they’re experiencing,” said Pikul.

She hopes one day the stigma surrounding suicide can be stomped.

“The other thing is knowing you’re not alone,” said Pikul.

Pikul emphasizes crucial need for transparency and open communication with close friends and family in order to prevent a life of loss and grief.

“Talking about it, letting people know you’re there for them, letting people know you’re thinking about them is actually incredibly helpful,” said Pikul.

Statistics show annually, more than 25 percent of Americans experience depression and/or suicidal thoughts.

“For individuals who are either thinking about it or if you’re concerned about somebody in your life that might be, talking about suicide really doesn’t make people want to do that,” said Pikul.

Pickle believes strongly in prevention by creating and keeping safe homes. She suggests removing harmful objects, and making sure your loved one is receiving support no matter how long it takes.

“If you know someone who does have a plan or you’re concerned they do the best advice we have is making sure they are getting support, help, and also know that the people around them have that,” said Pikul.

The fuel to ignite this deep conversation, often sparking up once it’s too late.

“I think if people are willing to open up about anything they’ve ever gone through that can ease the other person’s potential fear of sharing,” said Pikul.

There is no single answer to solving the growing suicide epidemic in the United States. It’s impacting law enforcement, parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews.

“The greatest thing in Dawn that kept her alive and kept her going were her two nephews and her niece,” said Stolee.

Loved ones and officials, often left wondering what they could have done to prevent the loss of a life.

“Am I saying the right things so that it changes their mind to get them help, or is it going to turn them the other direction and make them go through with it, that’s a stressor right there,” said Johnson.

“Through it all, Dawn kept her faith. She trusted in a merciful God to forgive her for the suicide and to spend eternity with him,” said Stolee.

In 2019, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed the number 988 be designated as a national crisis hotline.

There’s no word yet on if this will pass to help progress in suicide prevention.

If you or someone you know if experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). The number is available 24/7.

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