PINE RIDGE VILLAGE – Oglala Sioux tribal member Amanda Carlow brought home new hope and support for survivors of youth suicide, when she returned here Aug. 15, from a weeklong symposium for mental health professionals in Oxford, England.
Her presentation at the 2015 Oxford Symposium in School-Based Family Counseling sparked the formation of an international collaborative of counselors, social workers, psychologists and other mental health professionals like herself, who want to empower Pine Ridge Indian Reservation youth to rise above suicidal thoughts and feelings, Carlow told the Native Sun News.
The presentation was entitled “Open Heart, Open Mind: Working Together to Vanquish Youth Suicide,” and it “opened up a lot of eyes,” she said.
“Suicide’s really a sensitive topic, and during the presentation there were several other symposium participants who had shed tears. They didn’t know the full impact it plays for Native American youth. Other members of the symposium wanted to know what they could do,” she said.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Native American youth in the 15- to 24-year-old age group. That’s 2.5 times the national rate, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA.
Carlow gave the presentation along with pediatrician Nancy Iverson, director of the PATHSTAR Annual Swim from Alcatraz, in which Carlow participated for the first time in October 2014, making her one of dozens of Native American and Alaska Native health ambassadors in the San Francisco-based organization’s national fitness and nutrition outreach program.
“Originally, it wasn’t the topic we were going to present,” Carlow said. “We were going to present on learning the Lakota language.”
Then a spike in youth suicides occurred on the reservation, with 12 between January and May 2015. “It was tough to talk about but with everything that happened, I figured it was a topic we could cover,” she said.
No sooner had she arrived in London for the transfer to Oxford when she switched on her mobile telephone to find a voice message about another suicide that had happened back home. Two days later another occurred there.
Participants of the 25-member symposium held a brainstorming session and asked Carlow to send them information, in order to follow up with conferences and consultation on ways to provide long-term, ongoing professional help, she said.
“One of the hardest things is how the kids are younger and younger each time – 12- and 11-year-olds. Some really bright, intelligent kids are stopping their lives. They are just beginning or just graduated high school. They don’t get to experience that. They take all that away from themselves,” Carlow said.
Most of the recent self-inflicted deaths on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation did not involve suicide notes, she said. However, research shows that mental disorders or substance abuse are found in 90 percent of people who die of suicide.
Common challenges for most local youth are bullying, cyber-bullying, poverty, drugs, alcohol and sexual abuse, according to Carlow. However, she cautioned, “We will always ask why, but you can’t ever say why they did it, because they are gone.”
It’s important to neither glamorize nor sensationalize the suicides, Carlow noted, adding that suicide survivors are not only the youth whose suicides miscarry but everyone else in the community.
“That’s one thing that was talked about at the symposium,” she said. “Everyone is trying to survive.”
In Lakota culture, common watchwords are “We are all related” (Mitakuye Oyasin): “That is one of the reasons if someone takes their life and others can’t really understand it,” she said.
“In our belief, if you take your own life, your spirit just wanders this earth and you don’t go anywhere,” she added.
To help prevent more wandering souls, Carlow, who is a counselor at Red Cloud Indian School, trusts in a multidisciplinary approach. The Lakota language program at the school is one element, she noted.
She coaches high-school basketball and middle-school cross-country running. However, she said, “Sports may not be for everybody. There are so many different avenues.
“We have to keep giving kids opportunities,” she said. There’s a lot of different ways that we can empower our youth: Through college readiness, life skills, and teaching kids to exercise prayer instead of suicide.
“For myself, I really practice our traditional beliefs and ceremony, such as Sundance and things of that nature,” she added. “So I don’t force them but I encourage them, knowing how powerful that is in my life.”
Hers is the most recent of several efforts to focus prevention and healing on at-risk reservation youth, she noted. It involves professionals from Israel, New Zealand, Canada, and various U.S. states.
Their collaboration is sponsored by the Institute for School-Based Family Counseling and co-sponsored by the University of San Francisco Center for Child and Family Development.
The institute exists to “promote the development of school-based family counseling as a discipline through multi-culturally sensitive programs of both intervention and prevention.” Its 2015 symposium took place at Brasenose College.
After U.S. President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama visited Lakota Territory in 2014, he declared Native American youth education a priority, and ordered the December 2014 Native Youth Report, which calls for action “to work together to remove barriers that stand between native youth and their opportunity to succeed,” and specifically to “strengthen and expand efforts that target suicide prevention.”
The report notes that federal agencies have developed myriad workforce and training activities, tele-health resources, and programs to promote and support suicide prevention in tribal communities.
However, it says, “Despite important investments, key challenges remain, including ensuring a well-prepared behavioral health workforce and access to behavioral health services in native communities.”
The report makes clear that Native American youth continue to face education, socioeconomic, health, and other barriers. “This is nothing short of a national crisis,” it says.
“All of us, including the federal government, have an important role in helping to improve the lives of native youth,” it adds.
The federal government, through SAMHSA, is providing new Tribal Behavioral Health Grants for tribes and tribal organizations to prevent suicidal behavior, reduce substance abuse and promote mental health among American Indian and Alaska Native young people up to and including 24 years of age.
Under the Garrett Lee Smith State-Tribal Youth Suicide Prevention program SAMHSA supports implementation of statewide or tribal youth suicide prevention and early intervention strategies. Grants support public-private collaboration among youth-serving institutions, schools, juvenile justice systems, foster care systems, substance abuse and mental health programs, and other child and youth supporting organizations.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe runs the Sweet Grass Suicide Prevention Project with support from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, which uses the Garrett Lee Smith State-Tribal Youth Suicide Prevention program to provide technical assistance, training, publications and partnerships that advance a national strategy of boosting knowledge and expertise in the professional realm.
Among other efforts to curb suicide among members of the Oglala Sioux Nation is the Rapid City-based non-profit Lakota Voice Project. Spawned by Oglala Lakota College business students and staff, it is supported by the Black Hills Chapter of the American Advertising Federation.
The Lakota Voice Project distributed 200 cameras to elementary and middle school students at Loneman, Crazy Horse and Red Cloud schools and asked the students to take photos of what they considered hope to be.
The photos became part of an exhibit at Rapid City’s Dahl Arts Center in December and lived on through social media on internet, as well as conventional advertising media, such as billboards.
The Oxford Symposium in School-Based Family Counseling was made possible in part by a grant from Trust Funds Inc. in San Francisco. However, Carlow had to raise travel expenses herself.
“We had a hard time fundraising to pay for the entire trip, but it was worth going,” Carlow said. “Sometimes I can’t believe the opportunities that I get. I’m really thankful for it,” she said.