As parents, teachers, school administrators and tribal officials continue to seek solutions to the youth suicide epidemic that’s plagued the Pine Ridge Reservation for years, health organizations from off the reservation are also offering their help.
SDPB’s Jim Kent visited with representatives of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine and workers at the Pine Ridge Boarding School to discuss how the suicide issue has impacted students and “supervisors” and what’s being done to address the problem.
I’m standing in Big Bat’s Service Station – at “the crossroads” in Pine Ridge Village. It’s THE place for gas, meals, snacks and that quick rest stop after a long drive to the reservation from anywhere. “Bat’s” is where people go to meet, greet and eat. It’s open 24/7 and, because of that, it’s always pulsating with life.
Bat’s is also just down the road from the Pine Ridge School Dormitory…my destination.
Like too many places on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the Pine Ridge School has lost students to suicide: 5 in the last year.
In an effort to help the students here – and the adults who supervise them – Kathy Farrah has been part of the team offering workshops on healing from trauma and dealing with stress.
“I’m with The Center for Mind Body Medicine,” says Farrah. “An organization whose mission is to teach professionals and other people skills that can help them self-regulate their body. And basically what that means is to deal with the stress of things that are going on in their life…the stress of illness in a scientifically valid way.”
Dealing with stress in a scientifically valid way comes by using a number of coping techniques taught by Kathy Farrah and members of her group.
“Things like guided imagery…using your imagination to promote health,” Farrah explains. “It’s also using things like meditation…which can be as simple as…what we’ve been doing a lot here is just teaching simple deep breathing. It can also be mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation can include mindful walking, mindful eating…simple awareness without judging.”
Other methods include drawing and movement…like yoga and something called “shaking”…which we’ll get to later.
“All these techniques actually activate different parts of the brain…so we’ve really found it a great model for healing not only things like high-blood pressure but also trauma,” Farah comments.
It’s trauma…historical, community, family and personal…that Lakota youth must live with every day. According to the most recent report by the Centers for Disease Control, poverty, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence help foment a sense of loss and despair among Native youth. And it’s all of these factors that are a part of life on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
As the last of the dormitory students leave for the weekend to return home, I sit down with Alice Bad Heart Bull in the quiet of the boy’s activity room. Alice manages the dorm and is also a certified counselor.
“Can you talk about the suicide problem here on Pine Ridge?” I ask.
“I would say it escalated over the last 10 years,” Bad Heart Bull observes. “I’ve been here 14 years now. And we did have a few…maybe about 12 years ago. And then it just seems like every year we’ve had more suicides. Then this last year we’ve even had more suicides…especially at our school. From December to March we had 4 suicides out of Pine Ridge School.”
Bad Heart Bull says until that rash of suicides, none had taken place at Pine Ridge School in about 6 years…though they were occurring in other areas of the reservation.
“And then we had one this last summer…in July,” Bad Heart Bull recalls. “She was a senior at our school and…and committed suicide. She had plans to go to college. Beautiful young lady and….I saw her 3 days before she did that. Not because she was having problems…because I was so proud of her. She was working. I said ‘What’s she going to do next year?’ And she told me what her plans were. She was going to go to Black Hills University. And…um...so those were her plans and I thought ‘Good She made it.”
But she didn’t. Alice Bad Heart Bull says for those students who live in the dormitory… their peers become like family and provide a strong support network in good times and in bad. She adds that having The Center for Mind-Body Medicine workshops has also helped the students.
“And we did some real positive stress release techniques with the students,” Bad Heart Bull explains. “And they really liked it…the last group we did. And we had them all come together. And maybe they were never all together…like the seniors we worked with 2 weeks ago. And they had a lot of fun. And we helped them. One stress release we taught them was meditation. And some other things we did too.”
Among those “other things”, says dorm employee Thelma Backward, is “the shake”. Which turns out to be…exactly what it sounds like.
“Well…we usually do it to Bob Marley,” offers Backward. “And you just…like…shake...your whole body shakes.”
Not quite the complete head-to-tail shake your dog might do, laughs Thelma Backward, but thorough enough to help get the tension out. Thelma adds that she is finding positive results from using the stress-relief techniques taught at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine workshops.
“We do have one little girl who has nightmares and she sleepwalks,” Backward comments. “So…last night she wanted to do meditation. And because I was down there with them by myself I was up and down the hallway. And I would just go into her room and I would talk to her…and have her close her eyes…and breathe. ‘Listen to your breath. Going in your body. Out your body.’ And…you know…just like that. Just talked to her. And I put her to sleep (laughs).”
“How did that make you feel?” I ask.
“Pretty good,” Backward replies.
It’s a bit too early to gage the results of the workshops, but Alice Bad Heart Bull says she is seeing a difference in the students with regard to their interest in taking part in the meditation exercises. Having the students participate in sweat lodges and returning to their cultural traditions is also having a benefit.
As extraordinary as it might seem to announce…Alice Bad Heart Bull says there hasn’t been a suicide at the school since it re-opened in August…and that’s quite a step up from last year.
Bad Heart Bull notes that the Lakota youth are very resilient…a character trait that’s part of their culture. If they can be taught to overcome their depression…believe in themselves…and learn it have fun and relax no matter what’s happening in their lives…their present can be as bright as their futures.