It's a long and lonely road from Missoula to the Fort Peck Reservation in the northeast corner of Montana, but Marilyn Bruguier Zimmerman, an Assiniboine and director of the National Native Children's Trauma Center at the University of Montana, last week made the trip yet again. She and a group of fellow UM researchers have been making the journey about every six weeks for the last five years, to try to help prevent suicide on the remote reservation.
The problem didn't make headlines until last year, when six teenagers killed themselves in Poplar (pop. 883), and 20 more tried to, prompting leaders from the reservation's Assiniboine and Sioux tribes to declare an emergency. Earlier this month, the suicide epidemic brought the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee to Poplar for a field hearing, chaired by Sen. Jon Tester.
"This is really about the future of Native youth, all youth," Zimmerman wrote in her testimony before the committee. "Teen suicide is not a single problem in isolation, but is part of a tangle of challenges that includes drug and alcohol abuse, family, community and gang violence, poor academic performance and a high drop-put rate, teen pregnancy, diabetes and obesity. Pulling a single thread will not untangle the larger Gordian knot of problems."
According to the Indian Health Service, the suicide rate among Native American youth and young adults is more than three times the national average.
But Zimmerman's team brought some good news to the Senate hearing: A youth mentorship program appears to be working. Following the emergency declaration in May 2010, the IHS sent 22 officers to Poplar, and as part of its investigation, they interviewed the community's youth. The agency identified, among other things, a need for more meaningful adult contact. Zimmerman's team then began an experimental mentorship program with 47 students at risk for suicide. The students identified someone on school staff that he or she could trust and the staffers agreed to periodically check in with the students about their academic progress and well-being. "Basically," Zimmerman says, "it's just saying, 'Glad you're here. If you need anything, I'm here for you.'"
The mentorship program has so far resulted in a drop in violence, which the IHS report found to be strongly correlated to being at risk for suicide. Among 10 students with a history of assaulting classmates, the number of assaults fell from an average of 4.5 per month before teaming with a mentor to less than one. "It really has had a tremendous impact for the kids," says Zimmerman, who used to serve as the tribes' suicide prevention coordinator. "That seems pretty doable."
And perhaps easily duplicated in other communities.
"The problem here is not unlike what it is in Poplar," says Roxana Colman-Herak, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' suicide prevention program coordinator. She says the Flathead Reservation lacks accurate data on the number of suicides among tribal members, partly because suicides often aren't reported as such out of respect for families. But, she says, all you have to do is "listen to the [police] scanner" to get a sense of the severity of the problem.
Colman-Herak works primarily with adults. The tribe's social services department was recently awarded a $100,000 federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services to promote emotional health in elementary schools—to begin addressing that "Gordian knot of problems" early on.
"One of the things in Indian County," says Judy Gobert, head of CSKT's social services department, "is that people don't like to talk about [suicide]. There's a taboo surrounding it. But now everybody's talking about it. People don't wince when you talk about it. The whole community is touched by it when a kiddo or somebody dies by suicide."
In late July, UM's Native Children's Trauma Center and Fort Peck Tribal Health Department landed a $1.4 million federal grant for suicide prevention. Zimmerman says it will allow the two entities, in conjunction with the Poplar school district and based on IHS data, to fully implement the mentoring program. It will also provide training for school counseling staff and help employ therapists and case managers.
Roxanne Gourneau, of Wolf Point, near Poplar, says, "I fail to see how $1.4 million is going to help the problems that exist here." Her son, Dalton Gourneau, committed suicide last November, after the emergency had been declared. She's sued the Wolf Point School Board, the superintendent, and the state of Montana, claiming they were negligent in her son's death. He had been disciplined for allegedly bringing a can of chewing tobacco to Wolf Point High School the day he killed himself. "That day, what would have saved my son, plain and simple, was an act of kindness and a phone call to his mother," Gourneau says.
Courts will decide if negligence was to blame for Dalton Gourneau's death, while the interagency effort in northeastern Montana to avoid more youth suicides will proceed with more resources than ever before. "There's a lot of work to do," Zimmerman says. "There's great concern. But I think the sense of hopelessness is getting replaced by a sense...that we can actually make a difference. We can provide programs and interventions that can prevent suicide, and/or can support those who have chronic depression or a substance abuse issue or suicidal thoughts, in a healthy way—and save lives."