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Suicide sensitivity

Rosebud Sioux leaders make strides, despite fear

WASHINGTON - The Rosebud Sioux Tribe is still reeling from the devastating effects of suicide; and some tribal leaders, fearful of the situation, are doing their best to reflect inward regarding tribal and federal efforts in dealing with the outbreak.

''We are in the midst of an ongoing battle,'' said Ken LaDeaux, CEO of the tribe. ''The problem hasn't diminished.''

Many tribal members had hoped the epidemic might improve after President Rodney Bordeaux declared a state of emergency on suicides and attempted suicides in March 2007. The declaration authorized him to seek assistance from the Aberdeen Area IHS, the BIA and the Public Health Service.

Since that time, multiple news reports have touched on the issue. The New York Times highlighted two shocking Rosebud youth suicides last June. The Associated Press noted the hundreds of suicide attempts at the tribe in the last few years alone. And the tribe's own law enforcement officials have kept track of several recent cases where suicide attempts within the reservation's small population have been successful.

While the press was rather quick to cover the issue, federal help was somewhat slow to come. Many say the real educational and prevention work is just now beginning.

Bordeaux recently helmed a Gathering of Nations event focused partly on suicide prevention and mental health issues. A suicide summit, aimed at increasing awareness, is also planned to be held on the reservation in July. Federal and tribal officials from across the nation are expected to attend.

The tribe, too, has worked closely with Tillie Black Bear, director of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society, on strengthening the work of her suicide task force, which began meeting before Bordeaux's emergency declaration. The group has worked to spearhead tribal health training and educational awareness programs through a partnership with Sinte Gleska University. It has also offered programs in local schools to offer support and information to students who may have questions about suicide.

In some respects, members of the tribe said, all of the attention on suicide has actually glorified the act for some. Many young people are hurting inside, and they're desperately seeking attention - even if that attention comes in the form of an emergency response to a drug overdose or a slit to the wrist.

''We need to strengthen our young people's feelings about themselves, as well as their connections with their parents,'' Black Bear said, noting that her task force's motto is ''Stop, think, honor, and celebrate your life.'' One of the videos that she regularly shows to youth notes that suicide is not a video game. ''We want them to know you won't be able to press play and start again.''

Tribal leaders are weary of the increased visibility of suicide on the reservation, and they do not want to see it glorified. Bordeaux, in fact, recently requested that IHS obtain his permission before allowing its officials to talk about their efforts to combat suicide at Rosebud. And IHS has followed his request.

''We want to be sensitive to our government-to-government relationship with the tribe,'' Thomas Sweeney, a spokesman for IHS, told Indian Country Today. ''We need to honor the tribe's wishes. ... We don't want to add to their difficulties.''

He added that it is quite rare for IHS to have hashed out such an arrangement.

''We don't want copycat suicide attempts, and I do wonder if that's happened over the past three years,'' Black Bear said regarding the increased attention as of late. ''This is an area where sensitivity is key.''

LaDeaux said that various federal assistance, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resources, have started to flow the tribe's way. He added that there is an ongoing dialogue with federal agencies to try to get more support staff and financial resources for prevention programs.

''As many resources that can be brought to bear are going to help not only this reservation, but any other reservation that is dealing with this type of problem.'' Behavioral health specialists and other experts with the PHS and IHS have also visited the tribe.

Black Bear wishes that federal response had come more quickly. She estimates that it took nine months for Washington-based health officials to visit the reservation after Bordeaux's emergency declaration.

''Not enough has been done,'' she said. ''I think that help was slow to come, although I anticipate that the connections will now be long-lasting.''

Members of Congress from South Dakota seem keenly aware of the problem.

''I am both saddened and alarmed by the high rates of suicide on the Rosebud reservation, particularly among youth,'' Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., told ICT. ''I meet regularly with President Bordeaux on tribal priorities which include eliminating suicide on the reservation and I continue to support the tribe's efforts to address this problem, including their successful request to locate a mental health counselor at Rosebud's IHS facility.''

Herseth Sandlin is a co-sponsor of the House version of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. She said she is working with her colleagues to pass the legislation, which addresses the need for mental health resources in Indian country.

''Make no mistake, this is a tragedy that continues to unfold, and we need to do more,'' she said.