It’s Time to Talk: Tribal colleges tackle culture of silence about suicide

Aug 15th, 2010 | By | Category: 22-1: Native Activism, Fall 2010, Features, Health & Wellness
By Janet Freeman

STICKY TOGETHER. The Wiconi Ohitika Project helped out with this problem-solving, teambuilding activity at the culture camp in 2009.

“In our culture,” says Coloradas Mangas, “we don’t talk about death.” Mangas (Mescalero Apache) testified at a U.S. Senate Committee of Indian Affairs hearing March 25, 2010, on the escalating suicide rate among American Indians. Mangas, a 15-year-old, lost five friends to suicide over a two-year period.

He cited the need for more mental health therapists as well as an overall change in cultural perspective when it comes to suicide. Mangas said that law enforcement and the courts play a larger role during a suicide attempt than the local mental health clinic. Courts order people to attend therapy, and police often are the ones fielding hotline calls. “This role of the courts and law enforcement criminalizes their behavior and makes their recovery seem less important.”

In some cases a “double stigma” may exist—the student, who has experienced discrimination and prejudice from the majority culture, encounters prejudice from other Indians if he seeks help.

“When it comes to suicide, talking about death and dying is the only way to break the culture of silence that is taking the lives of so many of my friends,” he said.

Although Mangas is a high school student, his experience with losing loved ones to suicide unfortunately resonates with some of today’s college students, where feelings of alienation and isolation can compound depression.

Compared to the general population, American Indians are experiencing an alarmingly increased rate of suicide, which some estimate at 50% higher than other ethnic groups. On the campuses of some tribal colleges, things look equally bleak, with 15% of students reporting that they seriously considered suicide over the past 12 months, according to recent research by Dr. Jennifer Muehlenkamp, a psychologist at the University of North Dakota, and her colleagues.

While the reasons for this tragedy are myriad and complex—and much remains to be done—some tribal colleges in New Mexico, Montana, Nebraska, and North Dakota are facing the crisis head-on, instituting prevention programs designed to reach students before they even set foot on campus. Just as importantly, they are doing everything in their power once they arrive on campus to significantly lower their students’ risk for suicide.

What does a good suicide prevention program look like? Muehlenkamp has one answer. In 2009 she, along with colleague and North Dakota Suicide Prevention Coalition member Dr. Jacque Gray (Choctaw/ Cherokee), developed a model program that integrates tribal communities with prevention program staff.

According to Muehlenkamp, an effective prevention program possesses three core components: integrating cultural tradition, connecting students with healthy mentors and role models, and erasing the stigma associated with seeking treatment. Many individuals simply don’t feel comfortable seeking help from a therapist from the majority culture. Sometimes the therapist, however well-intended, is unable to provide the culture-specific help that can really make a difference in treatment outcomes.

Reservation communities, however, face a stunning lack of resources dedicated to mental health services. Mangas testified about the local Indian Health Service (IHS) on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico, saying, “We have a mental health clinic with only one full time psychologist. One psychologist to serve a community of 4,500 children, youth, and adults.”

Tribal colleges face other challenges when it comes to suicide prevention. Too often their students’ motivation to find help is buried under other concerns, such as worry over family members or an ongoing struggle with poverty. A prevention effort that extends into the student’s surrounding community, therefore, can be particularly effective.

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