The Navajo Nation is slowly recovering from four suicides that hit a small southeastern Utah community from mid- to late summer. And community health officials are working overtime to make sure nothing like this happens again.
The four deaths came on the heels of several other tragedies near the rural Navajo community of Montezuma Creek, including a mine waste spill in the nearby Animas River and a car wreck that killed three members of a local family.
Ramona Antone Nez, acting director of the Navajo Department of Health, called the situation in Montezuma Creek “very sensitive and sad,” and declined to comment on the victims or the possible causes of the suicides “to protect our citizens and communities.” She did say, however, that she is helping to develop an interdisciplinary team and to appeal to Navajo Nation leadership “to coordinate our resources, to develop safe and inspiring messages to choose life, to establish and operate an information system for data collection, and provide respite to first responders.”
Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez mentioned the four suicides during a keynote address in late September, at an annual health symposium in Window Rock. Addressing youth in the audience, he said: “I am hopeful and I have faith in each of you. The bottom line is really empowering our people. It’s a generational thing. It might not happen in our lifetime but the next generation. We need to re-educate our people to self-sufficiency and self-reliance.”
The Navajo Nation is not alone in dealing with what some are calling a suicide epidemic across Indian country. A series of seven teen suicides on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation also got national attention in April of this year. According to the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute, a national policy group, suicide rates are more than double the national average among American Indian and Alaska Native youth ages 15-24. Native teens experience the highest rate of suicide of any population group in the United States. That rate is growing, especially among communities across the Inter-Mountain West, said Rick Hendy, lead behavioral health specialist at the Utah Navajo Health System in Montezuma Creek.
Hendy noted that suicides sometimes occur in clusters, and he hopes people in at-risk communities will stay on the lookout for signs of suicide in anybody—not just the groups perceived to be at risk.
“It doesn’t matter about a person’s ethnicity, income level or education,” he said. “We know that anybody can be at risk. We tend to put a lot of attention toward young people. But some of the highest risk is in the age range of 40 to 55 or so.”
He said people should pay attention when anyone exhibits the warning signs, which can include changes in sleep patterns, energy, appetite and concentration.
“There may be a loss of interest in things they used to enjoy,” he said. “Lots of times people even talk about death, and may even talk about suicide. Later, people say, ‘I didn’t take it for real. I wish I had.’”
Hendy said some members of the community have become proactive after the recent suicides in Montezuma Creek, even approaching the clinic on behalf of family members and asking about counseling.
Breaking the Silence
The Montezuma Creek community has ample resources from community health groups in all Four Corners states—Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah—which have banded together to address the issue of suicide across their communities.
For example, Clayton Small, Northern Cheyenne, conducts suicide prevention trainings all over Indian country through his Albuquerque-based program called Native HOPE. Small has already completed one training at Whitehorse High School in Montezuma Creek, and has two more scheduled—one at Twin Arrows Casino on the southern edge of the Navajo Nation, and another at Red Mesa High School, which saw two of the recent Montezuma Creek suicides.
Small trains community members in techniques like peer-to-peer counseling and community counseling, which involves guided talking circles.
“The framework we utilize is cultural and strength-based. It’s community-based,” he said, adding that eight of 10 suicides are preventable through youth-helping-youth and adult-helping-adult models of peer-to-peer counseling.
Small believes it’s important to defy the stigma that keeps some people wanting to silence talk of suicide.
“The stigma is don’t talk about it, or if you talk about it you’re going to bring bad luck, which is a bunch of BS,” he said. “We need to talk about it. We need to put it on the table. And that’s happening.”
Kelli Donley, suicide prevention coordinator at the Arizona Department of Health Services, said she and her colleagues have had good tribal attendance at several suicide awareness and prevention trainings they’ve hosted off reservation. But she observes that the greatest success seems to come from programs on the reservations that connect youth with their elders. For example, the White Mountain Apache Tribe has a program centered around a sacred lake that only members of the reservation are allowed to go to. Every 8th-grader gets to go to the lake with tribal grandmothers, who explain the significance of the lake in their native language, pour water from the lake on the youth, and tell them they are responsible to bring 8th-graders back someday.
“It’s the kids and the elders who are dying of suicide,” Donley said. “If you can engage both sides of the population, it’s a double win.”
What You Can Do
Attend an upcoming suicide awareness and prevention training, primarily for regional health professionals, on Monday, October 19 at Twin Arrows Casino near Flagstaff, Arizona, offered by Dr. Clayton Small of Native HOPE. More information is available by contacting Holly Figueroa at Health Choice Integrated Care at 928-214-2169.