The wounds left by suicide heal slowly. The hurt is particularly painful among American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities, which experience higher rates of suicide than any other group in the United States.
Though much more work remains to be done, there is evidence that these communities are beginning to write a more positive narrative about suicide prevention, thanks to the Garret Lee Smith (GLS) Memorial Act. The Act—named to honor the son of former Oregon Senator Gordon Smith—has supported youth suicide prevention initiatives for states, tribes and tribal organizations, and universities since 2004, and is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). And for 44 tribal grantees funded through the act since 2005, the path to successful mental health programs has included support from EDC’s SAMHSA-funded Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC), which provides training and technical assistance.
One of the most impressive success stories is the Kiowa Teen Suicide Prevention Program (KTSP) in southwest Oklahoma.
Sustained by a small staff, KTSP offers a range of services, including counseling and suicide prevention and intervention training for local leaders, with a focus on the specific needs of young people. To raise awareness about suicide, KTSP also holds events such as the Dance for Life powwow, which is open to all ages and to all seven AI communities in the region.
“A lot of people have been walking through the door, asking for information for a friend or their daughter or their son,” says Glenn Beaver, a community liaison with KTSP. “The program has really allowed people to open up and talk about this issue.”
KTSP began in 2007 as an effort to address the area’s high rate of youth suicide, which cut across tribal and non-tribal lines. Thanks to a three-year GLS grant in 2009, KTSP has expanded into a regional program, promoting positive mental health and suicide prevention programs well beyond the Kiowa community.
“Before the program, the stigma about talking about suicide was prevalent,” says Beaver. “But now, people are coming away from our events saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t know the issue was that bad.’“
Communities working together
EDC’s Cortney Yarholar worked with Beaver and KTSP to implement the GLS grant. In his role as a Tribal Prevention Specialist with SPRC, Yarholar helps grantees connect with partners, identify suicide prevention strategies and programs, and overcome potential barriers to suicide prevention initiatives. His ultimate goal? To help communities develop programs that will have a lasting impact.
He says that one of the most important parts of his job is helping communities use tribal resources and existing strengths to prevent suicide—and foster hope.
“We have to help grantees empower their cultural wisdom, their cultural knowledge,” he says. “It’s really important to develop trusting relationships with key stakeholders, leaders, and community members. Those are needed if you are going to encourage people to do something that’s out of their comfort zone.”
Working with the Kiowa project team, Yarholar found there was a need to improve communication among schools, health providers, and law enforcement, each of which had its own mechanisms for working with youth who were at risk of suicide. He also helped the team meet its goal of expanding from a community-based effort to a regional one. Regional communication was especially complicated because many institutions, public schools and hospitals among them, serve both Native and non-Native populations. In addition, overlapping service jurisdictions can cause confusion among different agencies charged with helping young people.
Yarholar helped groups that hadn’t worked together before build partnerships. He also provided resources for developing crisis response protocols, and provided tools to help schools put policies in place on how to respond after a suicide or suicide attempt. The key to success, he says, was getting all the different agencies to realize that they were after the same thing—promoting mental health for young people in the region, regardless of where they lived.
“The community is taking ownership over a lot of that,” says Yarholar. “And that’s what we work toward—people taking ownership over solutions to the problems in their community.”
“In communities that are dealing with suicide, there’s often a big focus on what’s wrong, what’s missing,” adds Elly Stout, a project director with SPRC. “A lot of times, people don’t realize there are strengths within their communities. Through technical assistance, we help people find those assets in their communities and leverage them to create long-term, positive change.”
Although the grant has ended, KTSP is still going strong and is now being supported partly by the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. The program runs a speaker series that helps build awareness about suicide. There’s a 5K Run and Fun Walk to honor life in Native communities and a billboard that offers messages of support.
And when he’s driving along Oklahoma’s Interstate 40, Yarholar will sometimes hear KTSP’s public service announcement on the radio, too.
“When I hear their PSAs, I think ‘Hey, I know them,’” he says. “They’re getting the word out to a lot of people in Oklahoma.”