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'Something I need for mental health': Group taking on 437-mile run across SD to raise suicide awareness

The inaugural 437 Project run comes at a crucial time for the state, as suicide claimed more South Dakotans lives than ever in reordered history last year. In 2021, the state recorded 198 suicide deaths, according to the state’s Department of Health.

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The group of runners taking on The 437 Project run.
Submitted photo
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MITCHELL — A dozen runners with a mission to put an end to suicide will be marching through Mitchell on Saturday before making their last leg of a 437-mile run across South Dakota.

The 12 South Dakota runners will begin their three-day journey in Belle Fourche en route to Sioux Falls, trekking through desolate plains and rural parts of the state that have experienced high suicide rates.

The inaugural 437 Project run comes at a crucial time for the state, as suicide claimed more South Dakotans lives than ever in recorded history last year. In 2021, the state recorded 198 suicide deaths, according to the state’s Department of Health. While each of the runners has a unique set of experiences and factors motivating them to embark on the 437-mile relay style run, they all share the belief that staying active helps improve mental health and wellness.

Benson Langat has felt the pain that suicide can cause. Langat, a Sioux Falls-based family therapist, is running for his late uncles who committed suicide and is striving to break the stigma of seeking help in times of need.

“The best way to improve our community and mental health is for people to take care of themselves. I believe seeking help is one of the biggest strengths anyone can have. Part of why I’m running for this project is to bring that awareness,” said Langat, who ran cross country and track at the collegiate level.

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The 437 Project was created to raise awareness and money for suicide prevention programs and resources across the state. Sioux Falls Mayor Paul Tenhaken, the founder of the event, has been a driving force behind The 437 Project. And he’ll be among the pack of 12 runners taking on the run across South Dakota.

Alex Pool, an integration manager at the 9-8-8 Helpline Center, is on the frontlines in the battle against suicide. In the past few years, Pool said Helpline Center has handled a major influx of calls from people seeking out help to cope with internal struggles.

“Since our transition to the 9-8-8 line on July 16, we’ve seen approximately a 70% increase in our call volume on that line,” said Pool, among the pack of 12 runners participating in The 437 Project.

Pool is living proof of the impact seeking help can have when battling through internal struggles, as he said counseling “really helped” him out in the past.

“I think more people need to know that there are services available to ask for help. We also have an online chat and text format we can be reached at 24/7. As a runner, I’m honored to be a part of this run across South Dakota,” Pool said.

Reaching more people struggling with mental health post-pandemic

For Kelly Marshall, running has long been an activity she’s turned to for her mental health and overall well-being.

As schools closed, business shut down and social distancing became the norm when the pandemic hit in 2020, Marshall, a Sioux Falls business leader, found herself running more than ever to cope. And she hopes The 437 Project run will inspire others to take to physical activity when times get tough.

“During COVID-19, I ran my highest mileage ever and wasn’t planning for a race. As someone who has been a runner for a long time, I think it’s so interesting to see how we rely on some of those strategies to get through times like that,” she said of running. “It’s something I need for my mental health, and my family recognizes that, too.

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The pandemic’s effect on mental health hit South Dakota hard. The alarming rise in suicide rates, especially in rural regions of the sate, have motivated state leaders to provide more access to mental health resources through the 9-8-8 helpline and other avenues.

Chesney Garnos has spent much of her life raising awareness for mental health as a devoted advocate. The Presho native has created nonprofit organizations to break the stigma of seeking help in times of crisis, and her involvement behind the scenes of The 437 Project is her latest effort to continue advocating for mental health awareness.

Growing up in rural South Dakota, Garnos witnessed the stigma around reaching out for help. She hopes a large portion of the run route going through desolate, rural regions of the state will de-stigmatize seeking help.

“We’re running through the most desolate and isolated areas in South Dakota for a reason because these are some of the areas that need this message the most. We’re running through towns that don’t have cell phone service,” said Garnos, a leader at The Event Company, a group that’s a big supporter of the project. “Being someone who has my own mental health experiences and who has lost former cross country teammates to suicide, mental health is something I’ve always been very passionate about.”

From 2011 to 2020, Native American suicide rates are 2.5 times higher than White race rates in South Dakota, according to the Department of Health. And many Native American reservations are in isolated regions throughout the state.

When the runners make their way through Mitchell on Saturday around 7 p.m., they will be greeted by mental health advocates cheering them on at the Corn Palace. Mitchell was chosen as the last stop for the runners to take a break for an event at the Corn Palace before making the 60-mile jaunt to Sioux Falls, where The 437 Project all began.

Garnos said the growing support the project has gained in the past month, including some of the state’s largest healthcare providers like Avera Health, Monument Health and First Bank and Trust, to name a few, has been inspiring.

“The growing support of this project shows more people are joining the battle against suicide and becoming advocates for mental health,” Garnos said.

Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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