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Learning to talk about suicide

Fellowship Story Showcase

Learning to talk about suicide

Picture of Cindy Uken

The latest spate of suicides has shaken the Crow Indian Reservation, even as Montana tribal leaders and tribal communities undertake aggressive intervention efforts to reduce the rate of suicide among their youth.

Cindy Uken is a 2012 National Health Journalism Fellow.  This article is part of a series examining the suicide epidemic in Montana. Other stories in this series include:

Keep condolences to suicide survivor simple, such as, 'I'm sorry for your loss'

Suicide victims' loved ones often suffer guilt, thinking 'If only I had ...'

Suicide survivor: 'There was really no help for me and no hope'

Teenage girl fatally shoots herself days before '08 school year begins

Before a suicide, a mother's lament: 'Why can't I fix this?'

Miles City school administrators tackle problem of suicide

Play designed to help youth feel comfortable discussing suicide, feelings of despair

Suicide is 2nd leading cause of death among Montana youth  

Veterans twice as likely to commit suicide as civilians

Police officer: 'Ma'am, I found your husband'

Veteran: 'I just always hoped that I would be in that freak car accident'

Suicide rate among Montana's senior citizens outpaces national figure

Veteran: 'You're taught in the military that you don't ask for help' 

Suicide survivor: 'There was a butcher knife in her chest. I just went berserk.'  

LGBT youth at increased risk for suicide

Transgender male: 'I never associated with being female' 

Former priest: 'I got the cue he's falling in love with me' 

Lawmaker on state's suicide stats: 'What we're doing isn't good enough obviously' 

'I didn't think he would do it,' mother says 

CASEY PAGE/Gazette Staff
Billings Gazette
Tuesday, April 2, 2013

PRYOR — Tyrell Little Light doesn’t remember a life without the images of suicide haunting his young mind.

He was only 8 years old when his Uncle George hanged himself.

“I was just a little kid,” said Little Light, now a 16-year-old sophomore at Plenty Coups High School on the Crow Indian Reservation. “I didn’t know what it meant.”

Today, he continues to wrestle with the complicated issue of suicide, a sore subject that has risen again in the past two months.

On Jan. 14, a 23-year-old woman on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation killed herself. About two weeks later, a 17-year-old high school girl on the Crow Reservation committed suicide. And two weeks after that, a 15-year-old Northern Cheyenne high school girl killed herself. Two of the victims were relatives; they all knew each other socially.

Little Light spoke to The Gazette in March before a suicide-prevention workshop at Plenty Coups High that was prompted in part by the three suicides, and a spate of recent suicides in Lame Deer, Wyola and the Lodge Grass area.

Mark LoMurray, founder and executive director of Sources of Strength, a youth suicide-prevention project, led the student workshop. Training was also conducted for staff and parents as part of a “reformation” under way at Plenty Coups High School, according to the school’s principal, Sam Bruner.

“It’s getting students to recognize that they have sources of strength,” Bruner said.

The program is designed to encourage youth to seek help from trusted adults and to equip youth with coping skills. It also seeks to diminish the code of silence among youth and social networks and reduce the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness.

It is one of a wide range of aggressive intervention efforts that Montana tribal leaders and tribal communities are taking to reduce the rate of suicide among their youth.

Little Light does not know why the three most recent young women killed themselves. What he knows for sure is that “it hurts.”

He considered committing suicide himself when he was about 13. His father died and Little Light felt lost. A sense of duty to his siblings kept him from putting a gun to his head.

Dante Stands Over Bull, an 18-year-old Plenty Coups senior, said the latest suicides have shaken the Crow Indian Reservation.

“Everybody feels the pain on the reservation,” he said. “It’s hard to recover from losses, especially for young children.”

Stands Over Bull is intimately familiar with suicide. He attempted to kill himself by swallowing a bottle of sedatives when he was 15. He was living with his mother on a reservation in South Dakota. His mother was drinking and the two had a hellacious argument. He figured suicide was his best option.

Before the pills took effect, his mother apologized. He was taken to a nearby hospital where he had his stomach pumped. And, that wasn’t even his first attempt.

Today, the 18-year-old is the starting center on the Plenty Coups Warriors basketball team. He is eying a degree in criminal justice.

“There’s hope all around,” he said. “You just have to look for it.”

In 2010, when six students killed themselves within six months in Poplar on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, “nobody really knew what to do,” said Lana L. Lambert-Mikkelsen, the tribe’s suicide prevention coordinator. “People were scared what was going to happen.”

While some on the reservation felt paralyzed, others rolled into action.

Tribal Councilwoman Donna Buckles Whitmer created the Fort Peck Youth and Family Activity Committee. Six people attended the first meeting.

The group wanted to identify and create activities for youth. The committee has hosted Easter egg hunts, family photo night and candlelight walks to commemorate National Suicide Prevention Week.

Last year, there were five suicides on the reservation. All were adults. Three were men who used guns. Two were female, including one who hanged herself and another who drove her car into a train.

Lambert-Mikkelsen sees the drop in suicides as progress.

“We’ve busted our asses to make sure the youth number gets down,” she said. “But I know my work isn’t done until that number is zero.”

When youth suicides occur in a cluster, child professionals Marilyn J. Bruguier Zimmerman, Matt Taylor and their colleagues are often called in to help. Over the past nine years they have worked with Montana’s seven reservation communities to raise awareness and encourage participation in suicide prevention efforts.

Each tribe has extended the team an invitation.

“What’s behind every one of those invitations is some tribal leader, elder or community group standing up, not being afraid of the topic of suicide,” Taylor said. “Some tribal leader or elder has said, ‘Enough.’ ”

They also have conducted state and nationwide trainings for school administrators, teachers, staff and school police officers.

Bruguier Zimmerman, a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, is director of the National Native Children’s Trauma Center. Taylor is director of Montana Safe Schools Center. Both are housed at the University of Montana’s Institute for Educational Research and Service in Missoula.

Whenever tribal leaders invite the pair and their team, their first task is to listen. Building a foundation of trust and respect is the first priority.

“There is a great danger and disservice done when outside consultants and trainers drop in to Native communities and presume to understand what the community needs,” Taylor said.

The team looks for guidance from tribal councils and community groups about their cultural perceptions of suicide, what communities see as their strengths, and how leaders believe the issue of suicide should be addressed.

For example, some tribal nations have taboos against talking about suicide.

“For some tribes there is a belief that if you open the subject of suicide, you call forth the spirit of suicide,” Bruguier Zimmerman said.

Part of the solution, Taylor said, is to continue to push the issue of suicide into the public discourse so it’s not viewed as something shameful.

“Suicidal thoughts are the dirty little secret for most people,” Taylor said.

The Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council has created the Planting Seeds of Hope Suicide Prevention Project to help decrease the rate of suicide and suicide attempts among American Indians from 10 to 24.

The program, which began in 2006, was started with money from the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act. It received $300,000 the first year and $500,000 each year after. Funding was scheduled to end on Sunday.

“It is unacceptable to be losing youth as young as 10 to suicide,” said Gordon Belcourt, executive director of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council. “Our main message is that there is help out there and lots of people who care.”

Since its inception, Planting Seeds of Hope has engaged more than 3,700 families and youth through various events. The activities have ranged from suicide prevention walks and youth community Halloween parties to conducting community readiness surveys and training law enforcement in suicide prevention.

On the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, newly elected Tribal President John J. Robinson introduced a resolution, which the Tribal Council passed, declaring April as Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month. It is a first for the reservation.

“We have never really addressed the issue,” Robinson said. “We cannot afford to lose one more life in this manner. It’s our obligation to create a safety net for our people. Suicides are hushed up because families don’t know what to do.”

The Crow Tribe also has the Methamphetamine and Suicide Prevention Initiative. The 4-year-old project offers mental health and substance abuse services to communities within the Crow Reservation through the Behavioral Health Department at Indian Health Service.

Youth liaisons also go into the school's classrooms and present topics of anti-bullying, self-esteem and respect, said Londa Simpson, who began duties in February as program manager for the initiative. Youth camps and activities are also being planned on the reservation throughout the summer.

“Through our presentations at the schools, we have raised awareness on suicide and we are starting to notice more youth reaching out for help, along with their family members,” Simpson said.

Some of the presentations have addressed the importance of expressing emotions and urging the youth to let others know how they are feeling and also providing the youth with resources in their own communities, Simpson said. The work they have done so far has also decreased some of the stigma surrounding mental health issues such as depression, she said.

This story originally ran in the Billings Gazette on April 1, 2013.

Photo Credit: Casey Page/Gazette Staff