Awareness of any issue is extremely important, however in this column, I will highlight strategies for prevention, and talk about ways to build resilience that can better withstand the lurking spirit of suicide.
First, it is important to recognize that suicide is a tender wound that we must be mindful when speaking about. If you are closely connected to a tribal community, chances are, you are very familiar with suicide. It is painful to say that Native Americans have the highest rates of suicide, nationally. And our beloved youth, ages 14 to 25, very tragically, suffer the most.
But before we even begin to delve in to that very important social issue for this month of awareness, I want to highlight the importance of resilience, and our ability to frame the conversation about suicide in such a way that leaves others with a deep sense of their own innate resilience, and equally, an ability to be an active part of the solution to the suicide epidemic.
We can all do something to turn it around! And as a communal people, we owe this to each other.
“Building resilient communities is a moral responsibility.” –Nick Tilsen, Oglala Lakota, founding Executive Director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation
Here are some strategies that we can all adopt to become part of the solution:
Strategy 1: Speak about suicide with the “Sandwich Method”
When speaking of suicide and other tragic realities of our communities, it is helpful to use what is often referred to as the sandwich method. Sandwich the difficult information, or negative information, with positive. No one likes to be left with a feeling of hopelessness.
For example, when you are preparing to have a conversation about suicide, begin with the very important fact that Native people are resilient! Then, speak of suicide, carefully, and then close out, again, with the fact that we are extremely resilient people!
It could go something like this:
“We are descendants of resilient people! We have survived centuries of loss and tragedy, yet we still continue to dance beautifully, smile and laugh incessantly, speak our beautiful languages, and find ways to maintain and regain traditional ways. We love deeply, we work hard, and we care for our relatives with all we have. We are so resilient! But because we are human, and centuries of loss have impacted us like they would any human being, we are suffering. One indication of this suffering is our high rates of suicide. Suicide is an attempt for those who are hurting very deeply, to end their suffering. Guilt, shame, and sadness, coupled with isolation, cause many of our people to feel hopeless. In some way, they feel that taking their own life is a solution. It is not.
Strategy 2: Connect with Friends and Relatives
Isolation can be a dangerous thing when anyone is feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt, shame, or sadness. Depression can quickly take root when someone isolates themselves for too long. For our ancestors, community was at the center of our lives. We connected with relatives at all times of the day. We woke up and prepared for the day with loved ones, and we ended the day in the very same manner.
Blackfoot Family, Photographed by Mary T. S. Schaffer, 1907.
We worked together, with our hands and our hearts, to take care of each other. This continuous community engagement created a feeling of belonging for everyone.
If you are not geographically close to blood relatives, make new relatives by attending social gatherings or ceremonies. Find a community of like-minded people by joining clubs, teams, or enrolling in classes. Many tribal communities have walking clubs, cooking classes, crafting groups, and parent committees. If you cannot find a group that suits your interests, start your own! Create a book club, or reading group. Invite people to your house and make dinner together. However you choose to do this, connect with people and strengthen your relationships!
One of our greatest needs as human beings is the need to feel love and belonging, but you cannot achieve this if you isolate yourself. It is extremely important to build resilience in each other by connecting with friends and relatives, regularly. Talk to each other, and listen without judgement.
Strategy 3: Pray
Prayer has long been the center of our lives, just like community. Prayer connected us to our strongest selves, and to the strength of all of creation. Recognizing a higher power is crucial to overcoming feelings of despair, as this allows for us to get out of our own heads when we are lured into obsessing over depressing thoughts. Recognizing the Creator and all of our spirit helpers gives us a sense of support that cannot be seen, yet always felt.
Traditional prayer medicines. Photo courtesy Sarah Sunshine Manning.
Pray daily. Pray to give thanks. Pray when you are happy. Pray when you are sad. This, alone, can change your life, and connect you to the strength of our ancestors.
It cannot ever be said enough. This is who we are, and who we always have been: a praying people. Forced assimilation and boarding schools ripped our people away from this strength, and today we suffer as a result. We need to become a praying people, again.
Strategy 4: Have Fun!
According to behavioral psychologist, Dr. William Glasser, it is a basic human need to have fun! Even our ancestors created space for fun. Social gatherings, traditional games, clown societies, trickster stories – they all nurtured our need to have fun. Today, Natives continue to demonstrate our love for fun and laughter. We can all think of our funniest relatives who we can rely on to always make us laugh. Contemporary Native comedians, like Tonia Jo Hall, the 1491s, James and Ernie, and the late Charlie Hill, they are all evidence of this!
Find healthy ways to have fun. Exercise, make time for entertainment, sing, laugh – just have fun! And make this a regular part of your day.
Strategy 5: Honor your Creative Genius
Creating time and space for arts and crafts was also something our ancestors did regularly, if not daily. Today, many creative, therapeutic outlets exist to ease depression and anxiety. In numerous articles featured in the Huffington Post and the New Yorker, it was indicated that coloring books for adults have become the latest craze. Turns out, creativity is meditative, relaxing, and spirit-lifting! Our ancestors knew this, and as a result, created masterpieces of basketry, pottery, wood carvings, beadwork, quillwork … the list goes on. We are all creators, and by honoring our inner creative genius, we are also honoring all of creation.
Draw, bead, write, make music, sculpt, sketch … just create something, and make this a daily habit.
Strategy 6: Set Goals and Go After Them!
Many people who have considered, attempted, or lost their lives to suicide, have indicated a loss of hope. Setting and defining goals gives us all something to look forward to and work toward. Write your goals down, log your progress in a journal, mark your calendar with important dates and milestones, make a vision board, which helps you to always keep your goals at the forefront of your daily thinking. Setting goals helps us to focus on what lies beyond our present moment of sadness. They remind us that we can very quickly refocus, and soon the sadness will be behind us.
Strategy 7: Remember our Ancestors
We are all proud to be descendants of warriors, chiefs, medicine people, strong women, nurturing grandmothers, and many, many beautiful-spirited people. Remembering them reminds us of our own strength, and our responsibility to honor their lives and their struggles. Remembering the spirit of Chief Seattle, Tecumseh, and Crazy Horse awakens the warrior in all of us. And speaking the names of Pretty Shield, Zitkala Sa, and our own grandmothers honors the loving nature in us all. Remembering and honoring our ancestors, reminds us all of many beautiful reasons to live.
Ancestors are standing by as our greatest source of strength. They perfected a way of life that was grounded in spiritual strength and communal survival. We can live this way, too. So let’s live, relatives, and survive beautifully.
Sarah Sunshine Manning
Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.