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Youth Suicide May Be a Preventable Tragedy

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
      Within the past two months, four young people on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in southern New Mexico have taken their own lives.
    One was a 25-year-old man; another man was 19. Then it was a 16-year-old girl. On Sunday, a 14-year-old Mescalero girl died of an apparent suicide, the Ruidoso News reported.
    The tragic news brings back into focus the alarming problem of suicides in Indian country, a place where youths kill themselves at a rate 2 1/2 times greater than their peers.
    It is a vexing issue, one that has been studied by many academics and generally blamed on the depressing forces of poverty, substance abuse and isolation and the traumatic aftermath of the American government's relocation and assimilation efforts.
    If that were so, it would seem to be an unmovable problem.
    But it's not. The issue of suicides among Native Americans is made more complicated by the great success of some tribally based anti-suicide programs. Two of the most successful in the country were launched in New Mexico, one on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in northern New Mexico and the other at Zuni Pueblo on the state's western flank.
    Those tribes have slowed the suicide rate through their efforts and — for many years — stopped it.
    In the span of about a decade, Jicarilla — once home to one of the highest suicide rates in the nation — reduced suicides by about 60 percent. Zuni Pueblo, which for decades had lost an average of two school kids every year to suicide, effectively reversed its suicide trend.
    How have they done it? By getting the attention and commitment of tribal leadership, agreeing it's a top priority and involving everyone in the community — schools, nurses, doctors, parents, elders.
    If they can do it, why can't everyone?
    Hayes Lewis was the superintendent of the Zuni school district in the 1980s when the tribe decided it had to change its course. Academics went in, studied the pueblo's structure and family, government and communication patterns and, working with the schools, developed the Zuni Life Skills Program. It was a curriculum that was integrated into language arts courses and covered communication skills, recognizing and dealing with stress, building self-esteem and encouraging students to recognize stressed or self-destructive behavior in others and intervene.
    "We told the students, we're not asking you to be clinicians or anything, and we totally understand you're kids," Lewis says. "But if you see something, here's the referral process."
    That referral process was not just an uncomfortable trip to a counselor's office.
    A school counselor or a home-school liaison would seek out the student quickly and check in. "It fairly immediately sent a message that you are really important and that we have a concern about your emotional and metal health."
    Sometimes the crisis could be as simple as a student being worried about his family being low on food, Hayes said, and tribal officials could quickly get a referral to an agency for help.
    Other times, long-term counseling could be recommended. Or a meeting with tribal elders might be set up. Or a traditional healing ceremony might be arranged.
    "They didn't just have one channel of assistance; they had a variety of them," Lewis says. Elders, who normally would be excluded from a clinical or school setting, were encouraged to be involved.
    "They had a lot of wisdom and a lot of cultural knowledge, and they were able to really get to the point in a way that was helpful," Lewis says.
    Zuni Pueblo has gone 18 years without any suicides in its schools, Lewis says. "It completely reversed."
    If there was a key to success, it was commitment.
    "That was the real priority of the community," he says, "and the Tribal Council basically set the tone for that prevention strategy."
    Another key was for the tribe to get over its own reluctance to talk about death and suicide.
    "It's always hard to talk about death and dying, but at some point you have to in respectful ways, as hard as it is for people," Lewis says. "There's always this talk that if you talk about death, you're going to bring death. But our problem was, if we don't talk about death, how are we going to end the taking of lives?"
    Acknowledging that suicide is taboo is part of the program.
    "That's one of the messages that we always send to our children, that based on our cultural advisers and our elders, is that suicide is not an option. For Zunis, that's not an acceptable alternative. So how can we help (youths) think through some of the options they do have?"
    Lewis now directs the Center for Lifelong Education at the Institute for American Indian Arts, which helps tribes align their resources so they can address their most critical concerns.
    Saving lives from being wasted is an obvious tribal concern.
    "We can do it ourselves," Lewis says. "I think if there was a message sent by tribal leaders and community leaders and educational leaders that the priority of having safe schools and meeting those prevention needs is paramount, then the action will follow or it should follow. So somebody really needs to be the champion."
    At Mescalero, the high school was just launching a three-year suicide prevention program in its high school, funded by a federal grant, when the first of the recent string of suicides occurred there in late August. (The tribe has seen worse years. In 2007, 11 tribal members killed themselves.)
    Jeremiah Simmons grew up on the reservation and just returned to run the suicide prevention program, which borrows many of the concepts of the Jicarilla and Zuni efforts.
    One of the cores of the program is encouraging every kid in the school to watch out for every other kid and get help as soon as problems begin to bubble. Another is to not be afraid of talking about suicide.
    "The idea of suicide is a very sensitive subject, and it's kind of taboo to talk about it here," Simmons says. "But avoidance hasn't really helped."
    UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. You can reach Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com.





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