According to the World Health Organization, over 800,000 people die by suicide annually, representing 1 person every 40 seconds. It is the 2nd leading cause of death in the world for those aged 15-24 years old, and suicide among males is 4x higher than among females.
Taking one’s own life is the result of a convergence of risk factors including psychological and social risk factors often combined with experiences of trauma and loss. Although an often taboo subject, one of the best preventative measures is breaking the silence and encouraging those in distress to tell their own story in their own way and at their pace.
Tulalip is all too familiar with suicide, especially among the younger generation. By engaging in active listening and reaching out to those who are vulnerable we can build a more resilient and stronger community. On September 10, more than 150 supportive individuals came together to observe and publicize National Suicide Prevention Day with a community strengthening Warrior Walk.
Wearing bright yellow shirts, the symbolic color for suicide prevention, with bold text that read ‘I am alive and strong’, the group convened at the Dining Hall. While there, all concerned citizens had an opportunity to create signs with positive affirmations and empowering messages, such as ‘believe in yourself, ‘help others succeed’, and ‘you are loved’. While most signs were uplifting in nature, some were more heartfelt by being dedicated to the memories of loved ones taken too soon by suicide.
“[This] walk is a suicide prevention walk in honor of prevention month. We named it Warrior Walk because we are warriors,” explained youth councilmember Marisa Joseph. “It was attended by tribal members and family members who have been affected by suicide.
“This is important to me because suicide has affected the Tribes and my life, personally,” she added. Marisa walked with a sign that read ‘in loving memory of Michael Lee Joseph, 34’.
In collaboration with Community Health, Education, Youth Council and other departments, all were welcome to attend the powerful walk for suicide prevention and awareness. Whether an individual’s reason was in memory of loved ones lost, in support of those who struggle in silence, or to showcase strength and empowerment, the yellow tidal wave that started at the Dining Hall and ended at the Early Learning Academy’s gymnasium meant a great deal to those who needed it.
“To me, the Warrior Walk meant healing, not only for individuals but for our community,” shared walk participant Shawn Sanchey. “It’s bringing our strength together to help uplift one another. It showed our youth and our people that they’re loved and the community is always there for you. It’s important to me our younger generation understands that we are always here for them.”
Reaching out to those most at risk in the community is critical to preventing self-harm. If you are worried about someone, please reach out and ask them, “are you okay?” By simply checking in with them and offering non-judgmental support you can make a difference. It is important to know that people in distress are often not looking for specific advice, but merely to be listened to with compassion and empathy.
“Walking together in strength and support for the youth, our elders and community members in need of healing is unity,” said Seilavena Williams, patient support executive assistant. “[There are] so many departments and divisions working together with our community in mind. By coming together the community members could feel that they are welcomed, supported and loved.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 is a crisis resource that provides free and confidential support 24/7. Suicide is not inevitable for anyone. By starting the conversation, providing support, and directing help to those who need it, we can prevent suicides and save lives together.
Talking to adolescents and teens about sensitive issues can be a daunting task, let alone trying to start a conversation about youth suicide. However, it is of vital importance that the conversation be had and the youth allowed to speak freely on the subject. It’s imperative there be no judgement, no pressure, and no expectation. The goal is to create a comfortable space where conversation flows naturally. During these times the youth can be very enlightening and provide insight to a topic we may not have considered before.
Over a period of weeks, this comfortable space where conversation could flow freely was created with several Tulalip youth who are highly vested in their community. These are youth who range in age from 8th grade to recent high school graduates, with the majority being current high schoolers. It was made clear that their perspective on suicide would remain anonymous and be contributed to a collaboration article with several of their peers. The focus of conversation was on the recent coverage and response to community suicides over the last few months, their thoughts on what leads Native youth to contemplate suicide, and what they feel would be effective programs and developments to prevent teen suicide.
“As Native youth, we have endured so much loss and pain when it comes to losing family members or close friends or even just stress within our family. We are still suffering from the impacts of the genocide to our ancestors. Even today, almost on a daily basis the outside world still tries to strip us of what’s left of our culture. We’re like 50 years behind on education, we are more prone to addiction, alcoholism and using drugs. Let the youth know that we don’t have to continue that cycle. We can break those cycles of being addicts and uneducated. We can focus more on education, sports, and being culturally and community oriented.”
“Often partying is glorified. We should try to have more programs to go against all the things considered cool to do as a high school students. The underage drinking, smoking, ditching school, and things like that. We need prevention programs that actually speak to us, keep us busy, and focused on what’s really important. Let’s teach the youth to aspire to something greater…than just being on the Rez living paycheck to paycheck.”
“When you’re a teen you think it’s cool to look older or act older or do adult things, but you’re still just a kid. You’re still in high school. Why not learn to be a cool kid but in different ways? We try so hard to fit in but really in the world after high school its cooler to stand out.”
“There are definitely cycles that have been created. We all know and are told everything about suicide. We’ve seen the statistics that show we are more likely than other cultures to commit suicide. We know that’s there. Even when you’re in the moment, you know that’s going to be passed on, you’re going to become another statistic, but it still happens anyway. It’s hard to get out of that thinking that life just isn’t worth it anymore. Creating programs that help us to aspire, to know that whatever it is we’re going through doesn’t have to define us, that this isn’t the end of our journey, but the beginning, is critical to us breaking those cycles.”
“There’s a program at Behavioral Health that’s so amazing, but not a lot of people know about it. They offer counseling, someone for you to talk to about anything. Even if it’s something as simple as wanting to voice your thoughts they’ll listen. It’s located in the old Montessori building. They offer transportation so they can pick you up from school, will take you to appointments if your parents can’t. This program is so readily available, you just have to take the first step of reaching out to them.”
“I have cousins whose parents try to deny the fact they need help, that they have depression, and are suicidal. They need help from people who can support them and help them with what they are thinking and feeling, but their parents want to push it all under the rug. That doesn’t help anyone. It’s that old style of thinking that some of our parents still have and we need help breaking that cycle, too.”
“There’s a slippery slope that comes when discussing overdoses and deaths related to drugs and alcohol. Suicides is a part of that. The lines get blurred when it comes to a teenager who is driving drunk or high, crashes, and dies as a result. To some that’s considered not a suicide, but to others it is. Sometimes those of us closer to the situation know the true intent even if people want to deny it. If we count some of the drug and alcohol related deaths as suicides then that statistic for Tulalip looks a lot worse.”
“We hear a lot about generational trauma and the importance of our culture. After Jaylen, there were a lot of outsiders brought in and our space was no longer ours. In a way the response to bring in those outside professionals triggered more trauma in us. What do they know about our generation? What do they know about our culture? It’s hard enough for us to talk about sensitive subjects with family and friends. How were we expected to talk about these subjects and our thoughts and feelings with people we never seen before and didn’t know? It happened again after Dontae. It’s hard to talk about sensitive issues with strangers. Bringing outsiders to our spaces isn’t effective and doesn’t help us to heal.”
“When they had people who we didn’t know posted at the Teen Center it’s like you guys are messing with somewhere we feel safe, where we feel like we don’t have to be afraid or sad. Having those people there made some of us be elsewhere because we go to the Teen Center to be comfortable around our friends, not to be judged by people who don’t know us. It’s our safe haven and for that time we weren’t allowed to feel safe there.”
“I think that people find comfort in those they know and are familiar with. Starting our own teen support group is a good start. We want a place to talk about our feelings with people who understand what we’re going through. If you’re feeling suicidal or feeling like you don’t have anywhere else to go, then a peer-to-peer support group would be there for you.”
“Over the last couple months, since Dontae, there has been an increase in teens attempting suicide. I know of four or five attempts and that most likely isn’t all that have tried. I know a lot of people who feel so lonely and have suicidal thoughts, but there’s nothing I can do to help them. It’s hard because our youth are so stubborn. Trying to help someone is really hard if they don’t want to be helped. So we, as a community, need to work together on finding out what the emptiness is and how we can fill it.”
“A lot of why we are so apart as a community is we’ve lost so much of our culture. We are so disconnected from values are ancestors had. We really need to push our culture, like to an extreme extent to make up for all that we’ve lost. We hear so much talk on the importance of family and community, but it seems we are more divided than ever. Families vs. families, old feuds, and people fighting over who gets what. It’s like we need to learn to be a true community again. At the end of the day, all of us are Tulalip family.”
“There are so many of us who don’t even know who their family is because everyone is so caught up in their own day to day life. The support that should be there isn’t and we don’t know who to turn to. It’s sad. That’s where the loneliness comes from.”
“It’s interesting that when threatened by outsiders our people band together like no other. The tribal mentality and need to protect one another is super strong then. So why don’t we have that mentality all the time? Something that has stuck with me is at a community potluck put together by Natosha Gobin and Malory Simpson, it was geared towards the youth but a lot of families came together, and they said we should come together in the good times, not only the bad times like funerals. I think there should be more of a push to go to community potlucks, community gatherings, and having the youth get together. We find comfort talking to people that we know. Having events or community dinners where the youth can come and have a good time then our parents would be able to catch up with their friends, too.”
“We know the odds are against us. It’s up to us to work against these stats and cycles we hear so much about. Suicides, lack of education, alcoholism, addiction…all these things are working against us, all the percentages are negatively in our favor. We can’t just get stuck in what we know, we have to be open to what we don’t know. We have all this possibility in front of us and in our future. Why not try to turn that possibility into something positive? There’s so much more out there for us than just the stats and cycles. There’s a whole world of possibility out there, beyond this Rez. It’s up to us to realize that and not be afraid to journey on our own path. We decide what our story will be.”
Damen Bell-Holter is used to making headlines, as the first member of the Haida Nation to ever step on an NBA floor.
Now the 25-year-old, 6’9″ gentle giant, a former member of the Boston Celtics, is making headlines of a different kind. Bell-Holter, now playing professionally overseas in Finland, is speaking out about the issue of youth suicides, which have plagued First Nations communities.
I sat down with him to find out why the issue touches home for him — and how he is taking action.
CT: Why has youth suicide become a signature issue for you?
DBH: Growing up in Hydaburg, Alaska, it was a big problem. My home life wasn’t ideal, with alcoholism and abuse and all those things. I had cousins who committed suicide. When you’re in a town that small, with only around 300 people, almost everyone’s family has been through it. It seemed like there was a suicide every year.
CT: What’s going on, and why is this happening?
DBH: When you’re stuck in small communities, that’s all you can see. You don’t really have big hopes for the future. I was extremely fortunate because I had basketball as an outlet, which was huge for me. But if you don’t have an outlet like that, there’s a lot of negativity in these small towns. And all it takes is one moment of weakness and struggle.
CT: What have you decided to do about it?
DBH: Since my sophomore year in college, I’ve been holding basketball camps for kids every single year. My goal was to give back and work with kids, and since I started doing that, I discovered what a big issue youth suicide is in so many communities. It’s a real pattern.
As a result, about 60-70 per cent of the time in my camps doesn’t even involve basketball. I talk to kids about domestic violence, about alcohol abuse, about drugs. I’ve done over 40 of these camps over the last few years, all the way from Alaska, to Haida Gwaii, to mainland B.C., to reservations in lower 48 states like Washington, Oregon and Utah.
CT: Why is it so important for First Nations kids to hear from you?
DBH: Kids in these small communities are really stubborn. If someone from the lower 48 states is talking to them, they just think, ‘You don’t know what we go through.’ But when I come and talk to them about my home-life growing up, then they realize, ‘Hey, that’s my story too.’
CT: Losing young people in this way is particularly heartbreaking. What would you say to communities going through this?
DBH: The biggest thing is to keep kids involved. Demonstrate a lot of positivity, make sure kids are coming to the gym, keep them active, and show them that you care. Some communities, like Skidegate on Haida Gwaii, are really great at that.
CT: To kids who are in a dark place right now, what would you say to them?
DBH: Your home-life doesn’t have to dictate your future and how you feel about yourself. Suicide doesn’t have to be an option. Everyone has struggles: I had thoughts of suicide when I was a kid, too. I thought there was nothing better for me out there. But if I had taken my own life, I would have affected my family and my community for generations to come. I wouldn’t be here sharing my story right now.
CT: How has the response been to your youth camps?
DBH: The great thing about native communities is that when someone does something special, everyone really comes together to support them. I’ve had so much support from Haida Gwaii, and towns like Skidegate and Masset, with people telling me they’re proud of me. Hopefully I’ll have an effect on these kids, even just a few of them, because here I am — Haida from a small Alaska town of 300 — and I’ve seen the highest levels of basketball in the world, doing things I never thought I’d have the opportunity to do.
When it comes to suicide prevention, every day matters. In honor of World Suicide Prevention Month (September), the Tulalip Tribes thank those that work in our community and take action every day to bring suicide prevention services and awareness practices to our tight-knit community.
World Suicide Prevention Day, which first started in 2003, is recognized annually on September 10 and aims to:
Raise awareness that suicide is preventable
Improve education about suicide
Spread information about suicide awareness
Decrease stigmatization regarding suicide
Tulalip tribal member Jo-E-Dee Fryberg is only 17 years-old, yet she has found a passion for helping her people. She has focused on suicide prevention by helping youth in her Tulalip community and other communities succeed by finding hope where hope doesn’t seem to exist.
Jo-E-Dee is one of three We R Native youth ambassadors reaching out to young Natives by promoting World Suicide Prevention Month in a YouTube video featuring Native youth who are survivors of suicide or suicide attempts. Their message: #WeNeedYouHere.
“We’ve been losing a lot of kids to suicide. It’s something that never stops. But I’m hoping that with this generation we can finally stand up, talk to someone, and seek help for what we’re feeling, instead of letting this cycle of youth suicide continue,” says Jo-E-Dee. “The #WeNeedYouHere message, it speaks to people my age and from communities like mine.”
We R Native is a multimedia health resource for Native teens and young adults run by the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board. They are a comprehensive health resource for Native youth, by Native youth, providing content and stories about the topics that matter most to them. We R Native strives to promote holistic health and positive growth in our local communities and nation at large.
Native youth ambassadors from across the nation began spreading the message for suicide prevention and awareness over the summer, “helping to spread positive vibes and create positive change in their local communities,” We R Native said in a press release.
Creating awareness that suicide can be prevented is their first project. To increase the visibility of their campaign they created the hashtag #WeNeedYouHere, and individually they are speaking out.
Suicide has personally affected ambassador Jo-E-Dee. She shares how her involvement in canoe journeys and pow-wows helped her cope with her brother’s death, and how she feels personally invested in spreading the #WeNeedYouHere message.
“My brother [Clinton “Crazy Wolf” Fryberg] committed suicide in 2010. His death changed me forever. I became suicidal and didn’t know how to deal with those thoughts and feelings. I didn’t know how to talk about it,” recalls Jo-E-Dee. “Those of us who struggle with suicidal thoughts and feelings, we don’t really understand what it is we’re going through. I went to treatment, and through therapy learned how to talk about what I was feeling. I learned why I was feeling suicidal and how to find my way back to living a good life.”
This challenge of suicide prevention hits home for a lot of us. Suicide is a very tough issue, but addressing the tough issues and speaking openly to let our people know that we care is crucial to the healing process.
“Here’s some things I can do if I’m having suicidal thoughts: call someone and flat out tell them ‘I’m feeling suicidal and I’m scared. I don’t know what to do’,” says Joe-E-Dee. “Going to church and staying invested in our cultural activities warms our hearts, you know, like you feel happy when go and it makes you want to keep on going back and doing what you are doing. I felt hopeless before, and if you feel hopeless this is what you need to know: there’s always room for something new and it’s never too late to start something good.”
If you need help, or to give help, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text START to 741741 to chat via text.
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 3,000 people on average commit suicide daily. About one million people die by suicide each year. Suicide rates are at an all-time high for U.S. military veterans. In addition, for every person who commits suicide, 20 or more others attempt to end their lives. What’s obvious from the World Health Organization statistics is that suicide does not discriminate upon race, age, or gender. It is a social issue that plagues everyone, whether directly or indirectly.
The effects of suicide are not limited to those who die. Suicide is a serious public health problem that has shattered the lives of millions of people, families, and communities nationwide. We can all take action to reduce its toll. A variety of strategies are available for individuals and organizations across the United States to help prevent suicide.
On the local, tribal level the Tulalip Tribes have been hard at work on a Suicide Prevention Plan that aims to stop Tribal member suicides, based on the belief that suicide is preventable in our community.
Although suicides occur everywhere in the world, Native Americans are disproportionately affected by suicide and the lasting impact it has on our tight-knit communities. In Tulalip, we recognize the role that historical trauma plays in the mental health of our people. The events of history cannot be changed and the effects of trauma now exist in our bodies and the struggle for healthy coping skills and mental resiliency is a challenge. This plan is vital in our journey to healing; we know that every life is important and we are dedicated to educating our people and preventing unnecessary death.
Tulalip community members who are interested in receiving assistance with mental wellness should call the Family Services main number to schedule an intake for individual or family counseling: 360-716-4400 (18 and over) or 360-716-3284 (under 18).
Warning signs of suicidal behavior
Everyone can play a role in preventing suicide by being aware of the warning signs of suicidal behaviors:
Talking about wanting to die; feeling hopeless, trapped, or in unbearable pain; being a burden to others.
Looking for a way to kill oneself.
Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
Acting anxious, agitated, or reckless.
Withdrawing or feeling isolated.
Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
Displaying extreme mood swings.
What you can do
If you believe someone is at risk of suicide:
Ask them if they are thinking about killing themselves. (This will not put the idea into their heads, or make it more likely that they will attempt suicide.)
Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifelines at 800-273-TALK (8255).
Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.
WASHINGTON (KELO AM) – U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) applauded the Senate’s adoption of his amendments to the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), a bill that would reduce federal interference in education, and put governors, school boards, parents, and teachers back in charge. Thune’s amendments would require the secretary of education to coordinate with other federal agencies to report on efforts to address youth suicides in Indian Country and expand the use of Project School Emergency Response to Violence (Project SERV) funds to include preventative efforts against youth suicide and other school violence.
“There is no greater tragedy for a family than losing a child, sibling, or friend, especially to suicide,” said Thune. “Sadly, according the Indian Health Service, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Indian youth in Indian Health Service areas, with a death rate four times the national average. While there is a wide range of known factors that contribute to youth suicide, I think it’s important for us to get a better understanding of how we can better address both prevention and response to suicide in Indian Country.”
Thune’s amendment would require, within 90 days from the date of enactment, the secretary of education to coordinate with the secretary of interior and secretary of health and human services to report on a variety of information, including:
The federal response to the occurrence of high numbers of student suicide in Indian Country
A list of federal resources available to prevent and respond to student suicide outbreaks, including the availability and use of tele-behavioral health
Interagency collaboration efforts to streamline access to programs, including information on how the Departments of Education, Interior, and Health and Human Services work together on program administration
Any existing barriers to timely program implementation or interagency collaboration
Recommendations to improve or consolidate existing programs or resources
Tribal feedback to the federal response
The Senate also adopted Thune’s amendment that would expand the authorized use of Project SERV funds to include initiating or strengthening prevention activities in cases of chronic trauma or violence, such as the suicide crisis in Indian Country or gang violence in schools.
Local educational agencies and institutions of higher education seeking approval to initiate or strengthen prevention activities would be required to:
Demonstrate a continued disruption or a substantial risk of disruption to the learning environment that would be addressed by such activity
Provide an explanation of proposed activities designed to restore and preserve the learning environment
Provide a budget and budget narrative
Such requests would be subject to the discretion of the secretary and the availability of funds.
Thune also introduced amendments to ECAA that would exempt K-12 schools and higher education institutions from Obamacare’s employer mandate, allow Tribal Grant Schools to participate in the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, and provide parity for tribal colleges to compete for certain funding sources. These amendments were not adopted during the Senate’s consideration of ECAA.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing July 15 on juvenile justice in Indian Country. It comes on the heels of three recent reports that conclude the system is failing Native American youth.
Native American youth suffer staggeringly high rates of substance abuse, exposure to violence and suicide. When those kids get in trouble, many tribes don’t want them locked up. The senators asked the panel for steps Congress could take to improve the juvenile justice system.
Darren Cruzan, BIA deputy director of justice services, said courts both on and off the reservation need to assess each case individually to decide what kind of help that child needs.
“We are working on an assessment tool that will better help courts, when offenders do come into the system, point them toward the services they need,” Cruzan said. “It may be anger management. It may be suicide ideations. It may be drug or alcohol treatment.”
University of Nevada Las Vegas professor Addie Rolnick said assessments are great, but more needs to be done.
“You can do all the screening in the world and you can do it well but if you have nothing to do with those kids after you screen them,” Rolnick said. “You could find out all the kids, 90 percent of the kids, were suffering from mental health issues. But if there was no where to put them it wouldn’t matter that you screened them.”
Rolnick called for funding of prevention efforts, diversion programs and other alternatives to jail. She also suggested amendments to federal juvenile justice laws that include tribes.
Healthy Youth Survey shows many county students are at risk
Source: The Healthy Youth Survey
SNOHOMISH COUNTY, Wash. – As students wrap up their school years and head into summer, new data shows that parents and community members should be aware of signs to look for if someone is in crisis and where to go for help. An increasing number of Snohomish County teens say they feel sad or hopeless, have thoughts of suicide, or have attempted suicide.
The latest release of the 2014 Healthy Youth Survey data focuses on issues surrounding mental well-being, social support and risks of unintentional injuries. All fourteen school districts in Snohomish County participated in the surveys distributed last October, adding up to 11,852 sixth, eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders whose answers shed some light around the health of our youth.
“Since the school year started in September, we have lost 13 students to suicide, ranging in age from 12 to 19 years old,” said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer and director for the Snohomish Health District. “That sobering fact, combined with responses from the students, demonstrates a real need for this community to come together and show our youth that they matter.”
The main takeaways for Snohomish County youth are:
·More students say depression significantly affects their daily activities. Youth were asked if they have ever felt so sad or hopeless every day for more than two weeks in a row that they stopped usual activities. While 6th graders were not asked, 28.2 percent of 8th graders, 36.3 percent of 10th graders, and 35.8 percent of 12th graders said that applied to them within the past year.
·Suicide planning and attempts continue to rise. There has been little to no improvement since 2008 in the number of youth who have seriously considered attempting suicide, have made a suicide plan, or who attempted suicide. Statistics for 6th graders have stayed relatively unchanged, with 15.9 percent saying they have seriously thought about it in 2008, compared to 16.2 percent in 2014. However, the numbers have increased by 3 to 4 percent in all other grades for the same time period.
·Sophomores at slightly higher risk. In 2014, 1 out of 10 sophomores admitted to attempting suicide, 21 percent had seriously considered suicide, and almost 18 percent had planned out how they might do so. This compares to 4.8 percent of 6thgraders, 8.8 percent of 8th graders, and 8.2 percent of seniors who had attempted suicide.
·Youth are in need of adults they can turn to for help. Nearly 1 in 5 students report that they do not have a parent or trusted adult that they feel comfortable confiding in or asking for help from. Among high school students, about 80 percent of teens felt they could seek help from a parent, compared to 86 percent of 6th graders. Only 70 percent of 10th graders had an adult in their life, other than a parent, that they could turn to in a crisis.
“These results are quite distressing, but there are strategies to help our youth,” said Dr. Goldbaum. “Most important is getting young people to ask for help if they need it, and for the adults around them to be engaged, aware and listening. Our students need to know there is hope and something to look forward to. We all play a role in preventing suicide.”
If you or someone you know feels hopeless or contemplates suicide, there are numerous resources available in our community. Visit the Health District’s Youth Suicide Prevention page for a list of sites, phone numbers and apps available 24/7.
Suicide prevention—for both youth and adults—was one of the top three priority areas identified in the Community Health Improvement Plan. The plan lays out a number of objectives and strategies to be accomplished by the end of 2019. Individuals or groups interested in joining an action team working on one of the priorities, please contact us at 425.339.8650 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Health District has prepared facts sheets on the depression and suicide data, as well as students’ unintentional injury risks. Each one features the most relevant questions and data for students in our county, as well as suggestions for what parents, schools, community groups, and government leaders can do moving forward. To view all of the fact sheets, visit www.snohd.org/Records-Reports/Data-Reports.
The Healthy Youth Survey is completed every two years and asks a variety of questions about substance use, safety behaviors, diet, physical and mental well-being, and school atmosphere.
PINE RIDGE, S.D. — OUTSIDE the Oglala Lakota tribe’s child protection service office, staff members updated a police officer on the latest emergency: An 11-year old girl had texted her cousin that she wanted to kill herself and then had gone missing.
A damp breeze swirled smoke from the caseworkers’ cigarettes, and the sun flitted between mottled clouds, the advance guard of an approaching spring blizzard. The officer jotted down some specifics on the girl and the remote area where she was last seen, then pulled away from the curb. They didn’t want to lose another child.
Since December, nine people between the ages of 12 and 24 have committed suicide on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — home to Crazy Horse’s Oglala band of the Lakota — in southwestern South Dakota.
They come to Pine Ridge every few years, these suicide epidemics, with varying degrees of national media attention and local soul-searching. What the news media often misses though, and what tribal members understand but rarely discuss above a whisper, is that youth suicides here are inextricably linked to a multigenerational scourge of sexual abuse, with investigations into possible abuse now open in at least two of the nine recent suicides.
I’m a wasicu (Lakota for “white person”) from Massachusetts, but I’ve spent about half of the past decade living on the rez, working mostly as a teacher and archery coach. Within two weeks of starting my first job teaching high school English here, a veteran teacher told me something he thought was critical to understanding life on Pine Ridge: By the time they reach high school, most of the girls (and many boys, too) have been molested or raped.
His anecdotal observation seems to track with the available statistics. According to the United States Department of Justice, Native Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other Americans, and the numbers on Pine Ridge, one of the largest, poorest reservations in the country, appear to be even greater. “We started two clinics for reproductive health in the largest high schools on the reservation,” said Terry Friend, a midwife who works at the year-and-a-half-old Four Directions Clinic, which specializes in sexual assault and domestic abuse. “When I take a sexual history of a patient, I ask, ‘Have you had sex against your will?’ At the high schools, girls answered yes more than no.”
Numbers are harder to come by for boys, but local medical professionals estimate that they are also high, and that such rates of abuse can translate to high rates of suicide. One recent study found that nationally, teenage boys who were sexually assaulted were about 10 times more likely to attempt suicide, girls more than three times more likely.
At some point, most local child sexual assault cases cross the tribal prosecutor’s desk. “Unfortunately, many of those same kids have suicidal ideations and attempts,” said the tribe’s attorney general, Tatewin Means. “I definitely think there’s a strong connection between sexual assault and suicide here on the reservation.”
THE BOY LOVED the sweat lodge. He was a troubled student but took solace in the traditional Lakota form of prayer, with steam hissing off big glowing rocks in the center of a small lodge made of bent saplings and canvas tarps. School and tribal officials said the boy showed up to school one day last spring when he was supposed to be on suspension, climbed a pine tree in the schoolyard and hanged himself from a thick branch. Teachers and students saw him, and he was quickly cut down. Struggling to breathe, he sprinted for the school’s sweat lodge, where he took refuge until the police and a relative calmed him down.
It wasn’t the first time he had attempted suicide in or around school grounds, administrators said. He’d been depressed, and behaving erratically, with signs that he was using drugs and “huffing” gasoline. There had also been signs of sexual abuse, involving not only him but also a younger brother and male cousins he lived with. Every time one of the boys showed new signs of abuse or talked about suicide, school officials said, they called the tribe’s child protection unit, and every time they were told the same thing: “It’s still under investigation.”
The child was not removed from the home. Then in December, two weeks after his 14th birthday, the boy hanged himself at home and became the first in the recent string of nine suicides.
His case was lost, it seems, in the web of tribal bureaucracies and federal oversight bodies that are long on backlogged cases and short on funding. The tribal child protection unit, for instance, currently has two investigators for the entire reservation, which the federal census puts at more than 18,000 total residents (though tribal officials say is closer to 40,000). The two investigators are responsible for handling upward of 40 new cases a month, and hundreds more in the long-term case management system.
About a month after the boy died, a 14-year old cheerleader killed herself. Soon after, rumors of an all-too-familiar detail started to spread: Before her death, the girl told friends that her stepfather, a longtime teacher and coach at her school, was sexually abusing her. What followed broke the usual mold, though: Her friends came forward to tell school officials. Charles Roessel, a member of the Navajo Nation and director of the federal Bureau of Indian Education, which oversees the school, said administrators acted quickly to suspend the accused teacher and refer the case to federal investigators. No charges have been brought.
Shortly after his suspension from the federal school, the cheerleader’s stepfather was brought on, according to school officials, as an unpaid intern by the reservation’s Shannon County school system, which is overseen by the state. His job was to shadow one of the system’s principals so that he could learn to be a school administrator. The stepfather did not respond to requests for comment.
TRIBAL LEADERS and experts are struggling to understand the recent suicide epidemic (specifics on many of the cases aren’t widely known), but there’s general agreement on one underlying cause: the legacy of federally funded boarding schools that forcibly removed generations of Native American children from their homes. Former students and scholars of the institutions say that the isolation and lack of oversight at the mostly church-run schools allowed physical and sexual abuse to run rampant.
“My grandmother used to tell me that she didn’t think she was pretty,” said an E.M.T. friend of mine who responds to a suicide attempt every week or so, “because when the priests used to sneak into her dorm and take a little girl for the night, they never picked her.”
Left untreated, such sexual abuse can lead to elevated rates of drug and alcohol abuse and suicide, said Dr. Steven Berkowitz, director of a center on youth trauma at the University of Pennsylvania.
One sad irony of the recent suicides is that they come in the middle of new initiatives to address sexual assault. The Four Directions Clinic is treating young abuse victims who were previously sent to distant hospitals off the reservation. Tribal and federal law enforcement officials now confer regularly to better coordinate investigations. High school students recently petitioned the Pine Ridge school board to create health classes for vulnerable middle school students, and the board unanimously voted to find necessary funding.
Still, the challenges are enormous. Six days after the 11-year-old girl went missing, protection services still hadn’t located her, though a caseworker says the hope is that the girl and her mother have gone to a domestic violence shelter somewhere — the reservation doesn’t have its own.
Shortly before the 14-year-old boy committed suicide, a school administrator tried to counsel him. Lakota tradition, she told him, teaches that a spirit set free by suicide is doomed to wander the earth in lonely darkness. “You don’t want that, do you?” she asked. He looked her in the eye, a minor taboo for Lakota children to do with their elders, and said, “Anything’s better than here.”
Julian Juan was only 13 when he noticed the scars. A high school freshman on the Tohono O’Odham Reservation, about an hour and a half southwest of Tucson, Arizona, Juan had a tight-knit group of seemingly gregarious friends. But even in southern Arizona’s desert heat, some of those friends wore long-sleeved shirts. Once, a friend’s sleeve rode up high enough to reveal scarred flesh.
“When I asked about it, they would say, ‘Oh, I cut myself doing yard work,’ or ‘I got caught in a fence,’ ” Juan remembered. He persistently pushed them for the truth. “They would say they were having these thoughts and would never fully explain,” he said. He could tell the people closest to him were suffering. And he wanted to do something about it.
Today, Juan is a 23-year-old junior at the University of New Mexico who serves as a youth cabinet member in the National Congress of American Indians, the largest advocacy organization for Native Americans in the country, where he’s worked with a broad coalition of young people to put mental health among tribal elders’ top concerns.
“This issue is really taboo for people in my community,” he said. “They don’t like to talk about it, and it does hurt to talk about, but it’s not going away.”
There’s a growing mental health crisis among Native American youths, and it’s being driven by poverty, violence, and lack of resources. It’s difficult to definitively assess how pervasive the problem is, partly because cultural stigma about mental illness makes it difficult for experts to access many Native American communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among Native Americans between the ages of 15 and 34—a rate that’s two and a half times higher than the national average for that age group. The crisis appears to be afflicting Native American communities across the country.
On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, nearly 1,000 suicide attempts were reported between 2004 and 2013. In roughly the same period, the local hospital has apparently treated more than 240 people under age 19 who planned or tried to commit suicide.
The crisis is getting national attention. Earlier this month, First Lady Michelle Obama touted the Generation Indigenous Native Youth Challenge, a White House–backed initiative with the U.S. Department of the Interior. The initiative has the lofty goal of “removing the barriers that stand between Native youth and their opportunity to succeed.”
The first lady outlined a “long history of systemic discrimination and abuse,” ranging from 19th-century laws that forcibly removed Native Americans from their land to the early-20th-century boarding schools that meticulously extinguished many tribes’ language and culture. Those injustices set the tone for the dire situation in many of today’s tribal communities. Here are the statistics, according to the American Psychiatric Association: Native Americans are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than the rest of the U.S. population. They’re also nearly twice as likely as to suffer psychological distress, usually in the form of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Given this history, we shouldn’t be surprised at the challenges that kids in Indian Country are facing today,” the first lady said. “And we should never forget that we played a role in this. Make no mistake about it—we own this.”
In November 2014, a U.S. Justice Department task force, led by retired Democratic U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, submitted a report to Attorney General Eric Holder outlining several actions that could help address the trauma experienced by Native American children. The task force recommended that a Native American Affairs Office be fully staffed within the White House Domestic Policy Council and more federal money be spent on funding tribal criminal and civil prosecutions.
People working in tribal communities are searching for answers. Sheri Lesansee is program manager of New Mexico’s Native American Suicide Prevention Clearinghouse. She says that understanding the diversity of 22 tribal communities is key to accessing their needs. “The outreach and technical assistance really does have to be tailored to meet the needs of that community,” Lesansee told TakePart, pointing to therapists who are well versed in the concepts of generational trauma and familiar with tribal family dynamics. At the same time, Lesanee said it’s important to focus on the tools tribal communities already possess, such as endurance. “We believe—as Native people—we are strong and resilient, and we emphasize that in prevention efforts,” she said.
Jennifer Nanez, a senior program therapist at the University of New Mexico’s Native American Behavioral Health Program, said overt racism continues to play an important role in kids’ lives. “A lot of times the mainstream perspective is that Natives can’t seem to get out of this rut—and that it’s just a characteristic of an American Indian when it’s not,” Nanez said, before echoing the first lady’s sentiments. “[This] is the result of hundreds of years of oppression, and our kids are dealing with it.”
As proof, Nanez pointed to an instance from January when a group of Native American children attending a minor-league hockey game in South Dakota were accosted by a group of white men in a skybox above their seats. The men allegedly dumped beer and yelled racial slurs at the kids, and the story eventually made headlines. “They were getting drunk, and around the third quarter they were talking crap to our kids and throwing beer down on some of them, including our staff and students…telling our students to go back to the rez,” one chaperone wrote on Facebook.
New Mexico is one of a handful of states that have tried to address the problem through legislation. In 2011, the state legislature passed a bill that, in part, created the Native American Suicide Prevention Clearinghouse, which does outreach and consultation for various tribal communities.
Even Native Americans who don’t live in tribal communities feel the impact of the problem. Christian Redbird, 22, was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and has struggled with mental illness while attending community college. Members of her family suffered from undiagnosed mental illness. No one in her family had ever gone to therapy, and instead self-medicated with alcohol, she said. Redbird, the first person in her family to go to college, realized she didn’t have the familial and social networks to help her thrive.
“I work as a server in a restaurant and make more money than anyone in my family does,” she said. “It’s hard for me to know what steps to take when I don’t know what they are.”
A South Dakota lawmaker made the bizarre claim on Tuesday that Common Core educational standards was partly to blame for a rash of deaths among Native Americans, Think Progress reported.
“We’ve buried eight kids down on that reservation in the last week,” state Rep. Elizabeth May (R) said. “We need to sit up and pay attention. I’m not naive enough to think the Common Core is what’s causing all of this, but it’s part of the effect. We’ve got teachers down there who have just quit teaching it.”
May did not mention any specific cases or even name which of the state’s nine reservations where these deaths occurred. She said she had spoken to an unidentified “Indian educator” who opposed Common Core but had not been able to discuss the issue with lawmakers.
Indian Country Today Media Network reported last week that five Oglala Sioux teenagers had committed suicide on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation over the past two months. However, the curriculum was not cited as a possible reason for any of the deaths. Yvonne DeCory, who works with a tribal suicide prevention program, mentioned bullying, poverty and “tenuous family relationships” as factors.
“Being a teenager is hard,” DeCory said. “Being raised by your great-grandma because your parents aren’t around, that’s a hard life. You don’t stay young long on the reservation. You have to grow up pretty fast.”
May made her remarks as legislators debated revisiting a bill that would have repealed Common Core within the state. As MSNBC reported earlier in the day, the state spent $4 million to implement it and is slated to begin testing based on the standards next month. The bill had failed to advance in the House Education Committee a day earlier.
“This is a very emotional topic — especially for me,” May said. Despite her efforts, however, the effort to bring the bill back to the House floor was defeated.