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Old 04-15-2007, 02:54 PM   #1
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Exclamation Reservation seeks hope amid losses

Reservation seeks hope amid losses
By Heidi Bell Gease, Journal staff
Rapid City Journal - 15 April 2007
http://www.rapidcityjournal.com/arti...%20suicide.txt

ROSEBUD, SD — No one can say for sure whether a recent spate of suicides and suicide attempts on Rosebud Indian Reservation is a spike in a cyclical pattern or the start of something worse.

It’s serious enough that Rosebud Sioux Tribal President Rodney Bordeaux has declared a state of emergency. That’s a formality that could bring more federal funding to help improve suicide prevention efforts already in place.

“We’re hoping to prevent some in the future,” Bordeaux said. “You just don’t know.”

But as one Rapid City consultant on suicide noted, what’s happening at Rosebud — at least six suicides and hundreds of attempts in the past 15 months, many by teenagers — isn’t extraordinary in terms of recent history.

“I think it’s important to understand that the series of suicides at Rosebud represent a phenomenon that has been occurring in recent years in this region in a number of communities,” said Franklin Cook, who works with suicide prevention at the local, state and national level. “It is also important to understand that for all people in South Dakota — native and white alike — suicide rates among teenagers and young adults are disproportionately high and alarming.”

According to the American Association of Suicidology, the latest available data shows South Dakota ranking 13th in the nation in 2004 in terms of completed suicides per capita, with 14.5 suicides for every 100,000 people. Alaska ranks first with 23.6 deaths per 100,000 people. Eight of the top 10 states on the list — including Colorado, Wyoming and Montana — are western mountain states.

Cook notes that South Dakota’s figures include everyone and that 83 percent of people here who die by suicide are white. But with American Indians comprising about 10 percent of the state’s population, their suicide rate is clearly higher.

The Centers for Disease Control say suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people ages 15 to 24. The American Association of Suicidology reported a suicide rate of 13 per 100,000 in that age group in 2004.

Indian and Alaskan Natives have the highest suicide rate among that age group. The American Psychological Association cites a 2000 report by the Indian Health Service showing a suicide rate among Indian youth of 33.9 deaths per 100,000 people.

More than 80 percent of suicides are committed by boys, although the Suicidology group reports that girls attempt suicide three times more often than boys.

Rosebud suicide spate

At Rosebud, the numbers are hard to pin down. Rosebud Sioux Tribe Law Enforcement responded to three deaths by suicide and 197 additional suicide attempts in 2006.

So far this year, police had been called to three deaths by suicide and 51 attempts by March.

But police aren’t called to all suicidal acts. By one report, the Rosebud hospital had handled seven deaths by suicide and 200 suicide attempts since January, though I.H.S. will not confirm those numbers without tribal approval.

Here’s what is known. Of the six suicides police have reported since January 2006, the first four were young men, at least three of them students at Todd County High School. One died by suicide the day of Todd County High School’s graduation last spring. Another died weeks later. The two most recent deaths, in February of this year, were girls. One was a middle-school student — the first middle-school suicide here in at least 15 years, staff said.

Risk factors

Studies show that suicide is often linked to untreated mental health issues, alcohol and drug abuse, and/or violence, whether as a victim or a perpetrator. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center reports that more than 90 percent of suicide victims have a “diagnosable mental illness and/or substance use disorder.”

Other potential risk factors can include family instability or conflict, recent severe stressors such as an unplanned pregnancy, and exposure to the suicidal behavior of others. Some researchers believe racial discrimination is another factor that correlates with suicide among Indian youths.

Add to that the difficult conditions on Rosebud and other reservations — high unemployment, widespread poverty, high rates of substance abuse, chronic health problems and understaffed medical facilities — and the risks are compounded.

Many people also believe that teenagers involved in school programs or other activities are less likely to choose suicide.

But the indicators don’t always apply. One of the young men who died at Rosebud was a well-known basketball player. Another victim was in a Lakota drum group. Several were good students.

Angel Wilson’s son, Clay, was involved in school activities, too. The 19-year-old senior went out for basketball at Todd County High School this year and made the team. He also played football.

But Clay had also struggled with depression for years. He had attempted suicide before but “seemed like he was doing better,” Wilson said. She worried after one of Clay’s childhood friends killed himself early last summer, but her son seemed to handle the loss.

Clay was under the care of a psychiatrist when he hanged himself Jan. 24.

“It was pretty hard on everybody,” his mother said. “There was no warning. No one knew anything was wrong.”

Clay was close to his mom and had a large supportive family, including a 3-year-old niece he adored. He had some close friends and was a talented hunter, even doing some guide work, his mom said. He had a girlfriend he loved.

“I don’t think he realized how much he was loved by people in the community,” Angel Wilson said. She finds solace knowing he’s in a good place and that she did all she could to help him.

“Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it,” she said. “I’m grateful I had him for 19 years and two weeks.”

Suicide hits hard

Suicides can rock a small community like Rosebud or Martin, where people have lived for generations and families are often interrelated. It also rocks a small school: Todd County High School has an enrollment of about 470, and Todd County Middle School enrolls about 415, according to state statistics.

The death of a Todd County High School student also hits hard at nearby St. Francis High School. Some students have attended both schools; others have neighbors or relatives who attend another school.

Jeanne Freece, a social/wellness worker at St. Francis, said a staff member there had organized grief workshops, bringing in grief counselor Lula Red Cloud to work with students. They’ve also had ceremonies and hosted speakers.

At Todd County, the immediate response to suicide is well-rehearsed.

Bob Critchlow, counseling coordinator for the Todd County School District, said counselors and administrators decide how to respond to student suicides. What counselors tell the student’s classmates is up to the victim’s family.

“We try to be sensitive to the trauma,” Critchlow said, but it’s crucial to give accurate information. “Otherwise, the rumors are rampant.”

Extra counselors are brought in, and students are given space to share stories and seek support from each other.

Too much violence

After the most recent deaths, Rosebud Sioux Tribal leaders went to schools at Todd County and St. Francis to talk to students and hand out information on suicide crisis lines. A traditional spiritual leader, Roy Stone, also came in to pray with the students.

At the same time, tribal leaders distributed surveys to high school students, asking about the problems they face, who they can talk to about those problems, and what the tribe can do to help.

The teens’ responses were strong and clear: There’s too much violence here. Parents need to take responsibility for their children. Alcohol and drugs are ruining families and communities. No one cares. No one listens to us.

“Show us something other than talk,” one student wrote. And in fact, tribal leaders are hoping the students’ responses will lead to more effective long-term efforts to address the problem of youth suicide.

Those efforts have already started.

Trying to fill gaps

Tribal leaders have formed a Suicide Prevention Task Force that includes representatives from tribal government, schools, Indian Health Service, mental-health providers, substance abuse counselors, law enforcement, and groups like Catholic Social Services that provide services on the reservation. The idea is to combine forces to see what’s available, what’s needed, and how to fill the gaps.

“I think the best solutions are found with a multi-faceted approach,” said Dr. Dan Foster, a task-force member and ** psychiatrist with Indian Health Service in Rosebud. “All of us are part of the problem and the outcome.”

Foster ha set up “talking circles” to help community members cope with recent deaths. Participants take turn sharing their thoughts while others listen respectfully.

Nancy Fleming, a suicide prevention specialist for the Sioux Falls Help!Line Center, is helping coordinate the task force as part of a Suicide Awareness Partnership project funded through a grant from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

But Fleming’s main focus is school curriculum, along with training for teachers, counselors, police, parents and others in how to intervene with youths at risk of suicide.

“People are afraid often of not knowing what to say to somebody who has thoughts of suicide,” Fleming said. “For some people, it’s still a very scary thing to talk about.”

Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training teaches people how to respond in those situations. Teachers will be trained in August, and future classes are planned for community members.

The Suicide Awareness Partnership will also provide “Life Lines” curriculum for students at Todd County, St. Francis and Sinte Gleska University.

“Its main focus is to encourage and prepare students for when their peers make statements that, one, they take that seriously, and two, they seek an adult and know who to contact if that happens,” Fleming said. “Often we’re finding kids tell each other (they’re considering suicide). And then the emotional aftermath for people who survive another person’s suicide is often very devastating in those cases.”

It doesn’t put the idea of suicide into a student’s head. “Kids have much more awareness about the suicide issue than many adults realize,” Fleming said, adding that teens frequently discuss suicide on MySpace and Web blogs. “It’s good to counter some of that.”

Reaching out

Local schools are already working to prevent suicide.

“There are a lot of things that we do pro-actively,” Critchlow said. “But nobody sees those because they’re happening each week, each day.”

The middle school where he works offers dozens of after-school activities for students. They’ve hosted motivational speakers, held Career Days to help kids look toward the future and brought in community leaders like Tillie Black Bear of White Buffalo Calf Woman’s Society to talk about suicide and violence.

Counselors also spend time each week visiting every classroom from kindergarten through eighth grade, Critchlow said. Not only does that let counselors talk with children about things like healthy behavior and making good choices — subjects that could someday help them avoid suicide (see related sidebar) — but it lets students get to know the counselor. That could make students more comfortable seeking a counselor’s help.

“We never know about that individual … where we have been able to help (them) make a different decision,” Critchlow said.

The Rev. John Hatcher at St. Francis Mission said the mission staff is planning three summer youth camps that will revolve around Lakota culture. At Spring Creek, an after-school program provides homework help along with exposure to Lakota language and culture. The mission is also trying to work more substance-abuse prevention into its religious education curriculum.

“We’re trying to reach out … but I would say it’s a big problem here,” Hatcher said. “The problem is that kids don’t have any meaning in their lives. There’s no good reason to get up in the morning. And we have to do something about that.”

continued...
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Old 04-15-2007, 02:57 PM   #2
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Part 2

Gangs breed violence

Many students say violence and gangs are big problems — that they don’t feel safe. Rosebud Sioux Tribal Police Chief Charles Red Crow couldn’t agree more.

“The Rosebud Reservation has been in a state of denial regarding the gangs for a long time,” he said. “The culture breeds violence. … Our children are now becoming immune.”

That violence surrounds students. Tribal police have responded to 12 bomb threats and one shooting threat at Todd County High School this school year. Assaults and car accidents, often fatal, are common. And in January, two 14-year-old girls stabbed a 15-year-old girl to death in a field at Rosebud.

The stabbing was gang-related, Red Crow said. Tribal police are working with national gang and violence experts to combat the gang problem. Their gang task force has confiscated gang-related merchandise from stores, talked to high school assemblies and counseled individual families.

Gangs and suicide have a connection in adolescent development, Critchlow said.

“They’re both driven by needs,” he said. “And there’s an absence or a vacuum for whatever that need might be.”

For many kids, “you either get into this violent system or you have nowhere to go,” Hatcher observed.

Cook says studies have shown a direct link between violence — whether as a victim or a perpetrator — and suicide. He wonders how far that link might stretch.

“There is a good chance that cross-generational trauma from the U.S./Indian wars and their aftermath have an effect on suicide in Indian Country,” he said.

Foster sees present-day tragedies as “gasps of a people seeking to remember, to recover,” while still dealing with the “generational sorrow” that encompasses everything from the Indian wars to being forced onto reservations to being sent to boarding schools and punished for speaking their language.

“We’re coming out of a Holocaust,” Foster said. “I don’t know what else it can be called.”

But, he added, “We don’t want to just be survivors. We want our children and grandchildren to fully live. … We don’t want to lose another child. Period.”

No quick fixes

There are plenty of obstacles.

Federal agencies like IHS. are understaffed and under-funded to meet community needs. That’s where Bordeaux’s emergency declaration could help. When Bordeaux recently met with Bureau of Indian Affairs officials in Washington, D.C., they already knew about a Rapid City Journal story on the emergency declaration.

Bordeaux said additional funds could help provide mental-health services for more people, plus provide more youth activities on the reservation. A Boys and Girls Club is already in the works and a new recreation center at St. Francis Mission is now open nights and weekend afternoons.

Private agencies are also stretched thin. Catholic Social Services offers counseling on Rosebud and other reservations, but the needs outweigh the resources.

“Even when we do the very best we can, there’s never enough,” said CSS director Jim Kinyon, who sees the suicide problem as a symptom of ongoing unmet needs and poverty.

Reversing the situation will require long-term efforts to address the family dysfunction and substance-abuse issues involved, he said, not quick-fix answers. “The problem is greater than that.”

When St. Thomas More High School lost two students to suicide earlier this year, local mental-health providers, suicide experts, community groups and churches rallied to help, Kinyon said.

“Those kind of responses are not as common in our rural communities,” both on and off the reservation, he said. “The availability of resources is far too limited.”

Still, Kinyon said, it’s crucial that people come together to reverse what’s happening at Rosebud and elsewhere in the state. Indian youths are the fastest-growing population group in South Dakota, and losing them to suicide or drugs leaves the state’s future vulnerable, he said.

“This issue is more important than the price of corn and beef in South Dakota,” he said. “It’s that fundamental. This is our future, and we have to forge bonds and build bridges and recognize the needs and opportunities that these kids present for us.”

Hatcher agrees.

“It’s a spiritual problem; it’s an economic problem; it’s an educational problem,” he said. “And we’ve got to work together if we’re going to address this in any meaningful way.”

That means everyone, not just public officials.

Problems start at home

Rodney Bordeaux’s wife, Jody Waln, said one thing she learned from the student survey results was that everyone needs to pull together to help the youths, and that means adults addressing their own issues — even if it’s tough to do.

Many students surveyed wrote that problems start at home. Some said they don’t go home because of the partying going on there.

“These kids are full of hurt, and they just want someone home in their house that cares,” Waln said. “We are in a really touchy situation right now because a lot of parents don’t want to admit that they are not there.”

In the end, the culture’s past might hold a key to its future.

Traditional Lakota culture is closely tied to spirituality and a higher power, a connection many young people now lack. Hatcher says 43 percent of the Rosebud reservation population is 18 years old or younger, “and we know that (many) have no religious affiliation,” he said “They’re not traditional people, they’re not Catholic, they’re not Protestant. There’s just a big hole in their lives.”

He notes a study released in 2004 by Dartmouth University Medical School, the Institute for American Values, and the YMCA. The study, titled “Hardwired to Connect,” found that the recent “crisis of American childhood” — increasing mental-health and behavioral problems, rising rates of depression and suicidal behavior, etc. — is caused by a lack of connectedness to other people and to a moral and spiritual meaning.

“If kids don’t have some kind of spiritual base, they just get lost,” Hatcher said. “And that’s where we are now with a lot of these young people.”

Building hope

Those kids need something to hope for, many say.

Jace DeCory, a longtime instructor in American Indian Studies at Black Hills State University, isn’t familiar with the specifics at Rosebud but said suicides reflect on society.

“Individuals who are taking their lives have really reached their end rope,” she said. “What do we need to do as adults to help our youth want to live? That’s the bottom line.”

Youth suicide is a tragedy, DeCory said. “We need to encourage youth to work toward the goal to be recognized and feel good about themselves while they’re here.”

Foster believes that with hope, and the tools needed to handle adversity, “our kids won’t be clamoring to die anymore.”

He noted Billy Mills, who lived through a difficult childhood at Pine Ridge but went on to become an Olympic gold medalist and motivational speaker. Some sources of pain can be “fertile soil for a remarkable life,” Foster said.

With suicide, remarkable lives are left unlived.

Spiritual connections

In traditional ways, a spiritual connection can not only help ease the grief of losing a loved one to suicide but also help the person who has died.

Many native cultures, including the Lakota, believe the soul of a person who dies by suicide might wander, DeCory said. Their relatives pray for them. Some contact special medicine people who work with the spirits. “They help make that transition for that soul to be with the relatives (who have passed on).”

Angel Wilson believes that fully. Ceremonies have helped her and Clay’s girlfriend cope with their loss, she said. That’s brought her peace.

“I know for sure that he’s OK,” she said. “He (isn’t) battling those demons anymore that he’s been fighting with depression.”

At a sweat she attended in Kyle, a ceremonial leader told what he heard from the spirits: “Everybody who’s … taken their life in that way regrets it and wishes they could take it back,” she said.

Wilson doesn’t think her son and other young suicide victims quite comprehend that they don’t get a second chance to live. “It breaks my heart to see these other kids doing it,” she said. “I’d like to see an end to this.”

Wilson was impressed by how many young people attended the ceremony in Kyle — more than she would have expected to see at Rosebud, where too many youth have already succumbed to the feeling of hopelessness.

During the sweat, Wilson looked around at the young people there. Hanging over them, she clearly saw the image of one simple word. HOPE
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"Be good, be kind, help each other."
"Respect the ground, respect the drum, respect each other."

--Abe Conklin, Ponca/Osage (1926-1995)
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