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Oprah's Angel Saves Lives: Jeremiah Simmons Leads Suicide Prevention on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation

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The Oprah Network recently visited Jeremiah Simmons on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation in south central New Mexico, where he serves as the program coordinator for the Suicide Prevention Team at Mescalero Apache High School. He is featured in a video posted May 24 on the Oprah Show website as part of the education tribute for Oprah’s Farewell TV series.

Back in 2000, Simmons received a $25,000 scholarship through Oprah’s Angel Network, awarded to the Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year representative for New Mexico. “This scholarship was really my gateway to escaping the cycles of poverty, despair and hopelessness that tend to keep some of the young people down,” says Simmons, who is of Lakota and Navajo heritage, although he considers himself Mescalero, “because I grew up with their culture and traditions.”

Aided by the scholarship, Simmons attended Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and went on to study public health with a concentration in epidemiology, the disease patterns in populations, at the University of Arizona in Tuscon, where he earned his graduate degree.

In 2009, a grant for a three-year suicide prevention program was introduced to the Mescalero community, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Simmons applied, eager to return and give back to his community, and was appointed program coordinator.

As the program was forming in fall 2009, four Mescalero youth took their lives within two months. “There was a cluster of suicides in 2009. The program had just started; we were still trying to find training. People were blaming us left and right,” Simmons says, explaining that he considers suicide a community-wide issue. Everyone needs to play a role in prevention, Simmons says. “I’m meeting with a lot of different programs on the reservation and helping that program figure out how they play an essential role.”

The Oprah Network asked Simmons to explain the reason for the high incidence of suicide in Indian Country. A baffling issue to boil down, Simmons cited historical trauma, referencing boarding schools. “It set up a negative system, taxing and destroying a way of life for people,” Simmons says. “It pulls at the sense of worth of a people who valued their culture.”

Simmons explains that youth today struggle with their sense of identity and competing modern and traditional values. “They are tugged in a lot of different directions, and it’s difficult.”

According to national studies, youth above 14 years of age turn to their peers for advice before an adult. “They don’t typically seek out the help of parents until the situation gets extreme,” Simmons says.

So Mescalero’s Suicide Prevention Team passed out survey forms, collecting demographic information on all students, who prioritized the things causing the most stress in their lives. They also listed two friends and two adults they go to first for advice. The nominated individuals form a team modeled off the Natural Helpers program, the national peer-to-peer program. Taken on a two-day retreat, the students learn how to mentor their peers who may be struggling with difficult issues. “Their biggest role is to help [their peers] understand, to let them know that talking about things is actually good, seeking counseling is really good—promoting healthy behaviors,” Simmons says. The student team becomes the “natural network” to help “early-identify a possible crisis situation.”

One of the most innovative intervention methods Simmons and his three-person Suicide Prevention Team have brought to the table is the use of social media like MySpace and Facebook to reach youth. The Suicide Prevention Team presented this intervention method at the 44th annual conference for the American Association of Suicidology in Portland, Oregon, April 13-16, 2011. “The response was great,” Simmons says. “A lot of folks said it was the most interesting and most useful session to them.”

The Suicide Prevention Team created a MySpace and Facebook page, adding any student with a profile as “friend” on the sites. “We do a lot of monitoring through this,” Simmons says. “A lot of youth tend to put things that are bothering them online. We can catch students struggling with issues before it becomes really serious."

Simmons says students often write status updates such as, “I’m just going to end it right now. Nobody loves me.” A member of the Suicide Prevention Team sends them an instant message, such as, “Talk to me. I’m here for you. There’s other ways of dealing with this.” Simmons adds that the message and method of contact depend on the context and how well you know the individual. “Part of it is just letting them know we are here. We tell them, ‘We want you to talk to us. We’ll drive out to your house, or meet you somewhere. If you want to meet at the school, it’s OK. If you want to talk online, it’s OK.’”

Because some students find it difficult to discuss challenging issues in person, communicating through social media is a good first step, Simmons says. “If you start a dialogue back-and-forth through the social networking site, you are building the ability for them to talk about it verbally.”

Like any new field, there are issues concerning procedure and liability. “There’s a fine line to walk every day,” Simmons says. “It’s been really great. Because of this, we’ve been able to prevent probably more than 10 [suicide] attempts.”

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is follow-up saves lives,” says Simmons, who also serves on a revision task force for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention in Washington D.C.

Simmons is currently in the process of transitioning to another grant program called the Systems of Care Grant, also funded by SAMHSA. “Suicide prevention is one of the components,” Simmons explains. “The main goal is to actually create a mental health infrastructure to provide comprehensive, ‘wrap-around’ services.”

Simmons explains that a “wrap-around” approach involves the family. “The family decides how the services are provided to them,” rather than professionals, Simmons explains. “The family includes all the important people who they believe should be a part of their care team.”

Approaching the end of the three-year grant, the Mescalero High School Suicide Prevention Team’s program activities will continue. “I’m going to be wearing dual hats,” Simmons says.