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Taking action against addiction: Conference spurs conversation about drug use and suicide

Dr. Kenneth Snell, Chief Matt Burns and Dr. Benjamin Aaker discuss opioid overdose treatments during a panel discussion moderated by U.S. District Attorney Ron Parsons Thursday morning at an event sponsored by Avera and the U.S. Attorney's Office of South Dakota in Sioux Falls. (Ellen Bardash / Republic)1 / 2
Former NFL player Ryan Leaf now speaks about his experience with opioid addiction at events like Thursday's Communities in Crisis event at the Sioux Falls Convention Center. (Ellen Bardash / Republic)2 / 2

SIOUX FALLS — In 1998, Ryan Leaf was the second pick in the NFL draft.

In 2012, addicted to prescription painkillers, he attempted suicide and later went to prison.

And on Thursday, more than six years sober, Leaf shared his story in Sioux Falls.

Leaf was the keynote speaker at a conference called "Addiction and Suicide: Communities in Crisis," which was held on Thursday at the Sioux Falls Convention Center. More than 400 law enforcement officers, social workers, doctors, nurses and others interested in the issues of drug addiction and suicide prevention attended the conference, which was the fifth annual event of its kind put on by Avera and the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"It's sad that there has to be these kind of conventions and things that go on because there is an issue, but the fact that there's people mobilizing and trying to be proactive in the communities is huge," said Leaf, who now speaks at events such as Thursday's conference about twice a month.

After being arrested for breaking into houses to steal pills in 2012, Leaf spent nearly a year and a half in prison, during which time he got sober. He entered treatment after leaving prison. Now six years sober, he said that although telling his story is emotionally draining, he does it in an attempt to help those who are currently struggling and to remove the stigma around addiction.

"It's a community health crisis," Leaf said. "The idea that this isn't a health crisis, but rather, a choice, is the first misconception, and the best way to combat that is to tell the story, to raise awareness, to educate people on what it's really about."

According to Avera Senior Vice President for Public Policy Deb Fischer-Clemens, 192 suicide deaths were reported in South Dakota in 2017, making last year's number of suicides not only a 36 percent increase over the previous year, but the highest number ever recorded in the state. Additionally, Fischer-Clemens said that rural areas in South Dakota and the surrounding states are now home to the highest rates of drug overdoses in the country, having surpassed the rates in metropolitan areas.

"In the behavioral health world, we know that mental illness — such as depression and bipolar disorder — often coexist with substance abuse," Fischer-Clemens said. "We want to do everything we can to prevent these tragedies from impacting people within our state and region."

To try to combat those issues, Matt Stanley, the vice president for Avera's behavioral health clinical service line, said that Avera has reduced its total number of opioid prescriptions by 25 percent since August 2017.

In addition to Leaf's keynote speech, the conference included a panel on drug crisis intervention and prevention and stories from two mothers and a former Miss South Dakota International winner, all of whom were directly affected in some way by suicide, addiction or both.

"Our community does really need to come together to be smart about mental health and addiction. Without the support of a community, our loved ones aren't going to do well," said Angela Drake, a conference speaker whose daughter committed suicide two years ago. "I've just used this big voice of mine to keep stirring the pot and keep bringing it to the attention of others."

Drake and Leaf were both emphatic that the prevalence of suicide and drug addiction in South Dakota and the Midwest is not going to go away if people are unwilling to talk about it.

"Today is not about coming together to talk about a problem only to leave shaking our heads in sadness," said Ron Parsons, U.S. district attorney for South Dakota. "It's about having an impact and a concrete plan of hope, understanding and above all, action."