I was readying an article on suicide today in the New York Times and it has become an epidemic in parts of the country outside of Indian Country so more people are paying attention to it. However we have been dealing with it for quite awhile. Some Tribal communities have made tremendous progress addressing it and have stopped the cycle but for many the suicides continue to mount up. In terms of the data there has been a 90% increase among Native American in completing suicides over the last 20 years. The top three states in terms of suicide rates are Montana, Oklahoma and Wyoming. One of the common factors is that all three states have significant Native American populations. Those communities that have unemployment rates above 50% are especially at risk and there are still far too many of our Tribal communities that are in this category.
I have always been interested in the research on resiliency and there is some good news in regards to what we know about resiliency factors. Here are seven that can make all the difference for those who are struggling with the suicide epidemic that continues to plague our people.
1) Culture is prevention. From the time they are young we need to make sure our young people know their language, customs and participate in ceremonies. They should also participate in the rites of passage which give them a sense of belonging and purpose. And they should all have an Indian name. And they should know what their clan or band is. Those who do will be far more successful in all areas of their life and the will see the beauty in the world as opposed to the dark side.
2) Hardiness. This is a quality that will serve anyone who struggles at different times in their life. We must learn to persevere. I know there have been times when I thought all was lost but Tunkashila has always helped me overcome the toughest situations.
3) Sense of humor. When you lose your humor you are not in a very good place. I remember when I got to a point where I was very cynical, sarcastic and negative and that was on my good days. Now I rely on humor to help me get through the most traumatic experiences and it has lightened my burden. As Tribal people we have an innate sense of humor and sometimes it can be a bit warped but it is good not to take yourself too seriously.
4) Purpose and meaning. When I was unemployed for up to a year I was lost in terms of not having any purpose and meaning. I worked day labor 16 hours a day to get back on my feet and then eventually I found work in my field. Today I get to do what I love and it makes a difference in the lives of the people I work with.
5) Spiritual orientation. This is different than being religious. It only requires you to believe in a power greater than yourself. I have found this to be very comforting and it has given me hope during my down times. For myself this involved following the Red Road which is also part of the name of my business. My work and my spirituality go hand in hand and what I do in one area of my life I do in the other.
6) Reframing adversity as an opportunity for growth. I used to be very resentful about other people, places and things. I found out this did not serve me well and only used up negative energy. Now one of my favorite sayings is focus on what you have and not what you don’t have. For those who are suicidal it is important that they don’t lose hope because if you get to that point then you may feel you have no other options. You always have a choice.
7) Gratitude. I saved the best one for the last. You can not be grateful and resentful at the same time. I regularly make out gratitude lists which help me to change my attitude. An attitude of gratitude can change your perspective on life and literally lift your spirits. When you are down this is an important skills to learn and it can make all the difference.