Grant energizes battle to stop Indian suicides

By Steve Young
Sioux Falls, South Dakota (AP) February 2011

Morgan Pourier’s wrists carry the scars of a child beaten down by bullying, trauma and family struggles on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Though just an eighth-grader at Wolf Creek School east of Pine Ridge, she already has courted death in a bottle of pills and the edge of a blade.

But the culture of death that often grips reservation life did not kill Morgan. If anything, it transformed her into an important voice of hope in the fight against suicide across Indian Country.

And now, a newly awarded $50,000 U.S. Department of Education grant could give her and other crusaders a helping hand as well.

The department’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools has awarded more than $27 million in Project School Emergency Response to Violence – or SERV – grants since 2001 to help school districts and higher-ed institutions respond to suicide and other traumatic events.

In Shannon County, that money will pay for a case manager to follow up with students who have attempted suicide or voiced thoughts of it.

“We want to make sure they are receiving services,” said Allie Bad Heart Bull, who manages dormitory and residential life at Pine Ridge School. “We’ll work with their parents. We’ll do prevention, like peer counseling. The thing is, so many times, they get lost in the system. There is no follow-up. Hopefully, this will help change that.”

National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics indicate that tribal youths are much more likely than other American youths to kill themselves, especially in this region.

In 2009-10, nine students in the Shannon County School District killed themselves.

Pourier attempted suicide within that time frame. Family trauma at home and bullying outside the home led her first to try overdosing on pills, then to cut her wrists, she said.

“I was a bad cutter,” she said. “Most of last year, whenever I felt depressed, I sliced my wrists to relieve some of the pain.”

Bullying is particularly problematic on the reservation, said Tiny DeCory, a community advocate involved in after-school and summer programs. Again and again, children are made fun of because of their size, the way they look and the way they dress, DeCory said.

“Even little kids are bullying other kids for the way they look at them,” she said. “Bullying leads to suicide ideations. Kids are five times more likely to think about suicide if they’re being bullied.”

That’s not all. Eileen Janis, a suicide outreach worker for the tribe’s Sweetgrass suicide project, estimated that half of the cases of suicide on her reservation involve sexual abuse. The bullying and sexual assaults lead to depression, Janis said, which in turn lead to alcohol and substance abuse.

The Project SERV grant runs six months and has to be applied for again, Bad Heart Bull said. But it is by no means the only suicide prevention effort taking place at Pine Ridge.

Indian Health Service’s behavioral health department in Pine Ridge is a key player in dealing with troubled youths. So are Janis and the Sweetgrass Project, which is an arm of the tribe’s health department and helps to get screenings, early identification, referrals and follow-ups for at-risk youths.

And then there’s Morgan Pourier.

She and other Oglala youths are part of a program called Be Excited About Reading, or BEAR. Coordinated by DeCory, the group uses singing, dancing and storytelling skills to put on skits, role play and educate youths about how to deal with the ugliest realities of reservation life.

“If I could afford to take these kids out of school, I’d be doing it every day in Indian Country,” DeCory said. “I kid you not. ... North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana ... we could do presentations every day.”

Some group members such as Pourier speak personally to the dynamics of suicide. The skits then get to the issues of taunting others, of teens having babies, of children going hungry. Afterward, Pourier and the others are there to listen.

“I know we are connecting,” she said. “The kids in the lower grades, you can tell they look up to us. And the ones in the upper grades, they talk to us. When they feel depressed, they text us about how they’re feeling.

“If they get to the point where they say they’re going to do something, we get them help right away. I go to Tiny DeCory, and she gets them help.”

It is a good therapy program, DeCory said, adding: “People have been in denial about this for generations. We’re trying to end the silence. That’s what BEAR does.”

Now the U.S. Department of Education is joining the fight, too, and spurring hope across a landscape that sees too much senseless death.

“Everything is kind of buzzing,” Bad Heart Bull said. “We’re doing a lot of prevention. You know, there’s a lot of negativity out there. We have to bring that spark back up.”