Wolf Point Herald

Fort Peck Tribes Fighting Back Against Youth Suicide Numbers

Thirty-two years ago, Wilfred Max Bear was drunk and suicidal.
As a young man, Bear took to alcohol on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation to weather his depression. Other men, women and children suffered in similar ways, but Bear endured. He found answers in religion and eventually became the director at the tribal vocational rehabilitation program.
Still the thoughts of death lingered. Several years ago, he lost two nephews to suicide within one week. He ministered over both of their funerals.
Over the years, Montana has maintained one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Native American youth ages 10 to 24 have experienced twice the rate of suicide than the state average for that age group.
The Fort Peck Reservation spreads across four counties in northeast Montana. Poplar, with 880 residents, is the seat of tribal government. Wolf Point, a community of about 2,500, sets about 20 miles west.
The state 2015 Roosevelt County Youth Risk Behavioral Survey shows that 35 of 221 native and non-native high school students considered attempting suicide over the past year and 28 of 223 students actually attempted suicide at least once. The University of Montana has reported that between 2008 and late-2014, the county had 11 youth suicides, while even more youth tried and failed to kill themselves during the same time frame — at least 123 attempts.
Fort Peck Tribes' executive board members say the overall rate of youth suicide has lowered over the years, but much work remains. Tribal leaders met Tuesday, Oct. 6, at the Fort Peck Community College in Poplar to continue the implementation of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes Crisis Response Protocol Team, which formed to combat youth suicides on the reservation.
“Suicide has hurt us for a long time,” Bear said. “We’ve had this happen to us so many times we should be our own experts.”
Tribal leaders have worked with representatives from the Montana Office of Public Instruction to strengthen the delivery of mental health support to youth and families on the reservation. The adop-ted “wraparound” process focuses on developing family-centered teams and plans throughout the reservation-wide school systems to connect students with resources within their own cultural framework. Key elements for success include engaging students and families and teachers, with effective interventions and monitoring.
“This protocol is about youth K-12,” said tribal councilwoman Roxanne Gourneau. “This is useful. We could save a life.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Native Americans of all ages, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services and its “Suicide Among Indian Youth” report released in January. Data from the report showed suicide rates for people of all ages and also included specific figures for youth aged 15 to 24 between 2001 and 2010.
At 37 deaths per 100,000 people, Native Americans on the Fort Peck reservation had the highest rate of overall suicide in the state. The state rate was 25.2 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the report. The Fort Peck reservation also had the highest youth suicide rate among the seven state tribes at 82 deaths per 100,000 people. By comparison, the next highest rate belonged to Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation at 63.9 deaths per 100,000 people.
In recent memory, five students killed themselves during the 2009-2010 school year at Poplar Middle School. The rise of suicides caused tribal officials to declare an emergency and prompted the U.S. Public Health Service to send emergency teams here to provide counseling and mental health service in June 2010.
No suicides were recorded during the 90-day deployment of the federal health team that left a detailed report with a dozen recommendations, according to the Associated Press. The Indian Health Service declared the crisis passed.
The federal report noted the reservation needed mental health services and had high rates of unemployment, poverty and substance abuse – findings that most people here say they knew beforehand. The report also provided recommendations, but without funding options.
“I don’t judge how it was handled before, but I think it could be handled more humanely,” said Gourneau, whose 17-year-old son Dalton committed suicide in November 2010. “There’s a lot of things that we can predict by indicators, but the one thing that we don’t know enough about is why suicide has come onto Fort Peck.”
Tribal leaders say children and teenagers still killing themselves or attempting to kill themselves here. (Officials say data from their numerous federal, tribal, state and local agencies has been difficult to collect and organize.)
“Because of the rash of suicides that have happened this crisis response protocol team has come forward,” said Courage Crawford, the director of the Fort Peck Medicine Wheel, a cultural-based spiritual healing center designed to help at-risk youth. “The training has come forward.”
Crisis response protocol team members and OPI representatives visited schools last week on the reservation to pitch the wraparound plan and implement training programs for potential volunteers.
Fort Peck Health Promotion and Disease Prevention now seeks to host the first-ever training on mental health first aid Oct. 14 at Fort Peck Community College in Poplar. Dale DeCouteau, newly named suicide prevention coordinator at the HPDP, along with Crawford, both members of the crisis response protocol team, plan to host a two-day suicide intervention workshop Thursday and Friday, Oct. 15-16 at the same location.
During the meeting at the college, Tribal Chairman Garret Big Leggins and others said the “grass-roots” crisis response protocol team has been needed to combat youth suicides and the sensitive and personal cultural issues that affect families. All participants at the meeting stood in recognition of prayer and honor songs for the dead, the suicide survivors and for the families who continue to look for solutions.
“We have to find a way to increase hope into our reservation,” Big Leggins said. “We all know that we have a serious problem and we want to do something about it.”