Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) starts talking about teen suicide prevention

BECKY SHAY Of The Billings Gazette Staff
Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement is breaking the code of silence and talking about one of the leading causes of death among American Indian youths.

John Oliveira has dealt first-hand with youth suicide during his law enforcement career with the BIA, but Oliveira and his counterparts have not spoken much about it.

‘Let it lie’

“We tend to just let it lie dormant,” he said.

Not anymore.

Recently the BIA kicked off its partnership with the Jason Foundation during a conference in Billings. The conference, Family Violence and Teen Suicide Prevention, was attended by more than 50 tribal and social services leaders from Montana and Wyoming.

“The partnership has started a dialog” about suicide and prevention, Oliveira said, that stretches from the offices of high-ranking federal officials in Washington, D.C., to Montana to small Alaskan villages.

“There is a sense of excitement and hopefulness,” one conference participant said.

Flatt stressed that there are lots of American Indian kids who are not contemplating nor have attempted suicide. Suicide is the second highest cause of death among native youth, Flatt said, and that means there is an “urgent” need to talk about it.

“The statistic is so high, we have to address it,” Flatt said. “One of the toughest things is to start talking about suicide and to do it in a positive way.”

Teen suicide is two to three times higher among American Indian and Native Alaskan youths than among other ethnic groups and the general population. People in Indian Country recognize the numbers, Flatt said.

“It’s very refreshing to come into an area where I’m not having to convince them, ‘it’s your problem, too,'” he said.

The clincher, Flatt said, is not just acknowledging the problem but starting to act. Flatt said he has been well received by tribal leaders and community members, including during a tour of the Crow Indian Reservation this week.

“I really believe for a successful suicide prevention program you have to have a grassroots buy-in,” he said.

Flatt’s youngest son, Jason, committed suicide in 1997. Flatt said he was an involved parent, who joined PTA and learned about school violence and the threat of drugs and alcohol. No one, however, trained him about suicide – the third most likely way his teenage son could die. Flatt researched teen suicide, delved into the startling national statistics and established the nonprofit Jason Foundation within months of 16-year-old Jason’s death.

Based in Tennessee, the foundation has national supporters – both corporate and clinical – that provide funding and support to make its services free. That “purely altruistic” approach is welcomed, Oliveira said, in the face of tight budgets for federal agencies.

Flatt did not recognize the signs and symptoms his son showed before committing suicide. He later learned that neither did the boy’s friends and even when Jason spoke to them of killing himself, they were so confused and scared they froze and did not know how or where to seek help.

The federal agencies and foundation are working to make the services applicable to local needs, Flatt said.

“Each native community is unique,” he said, and its program must reflect local practices and culture.

Flatt encouraged people at the conference to act and “do what we can to help address this terrible problem of youth suicide.”

Some behavior to watch for, Flatt said, includes the following: Girls, especially, may make funeral plans and give them to a best friend; kids will give away prized possessions, including drivers’ licenses; if someone talks about suicide or wanting to die, talk to that person about his or her comment and seek professional help.

“Not a single young person that I talked to after an attempted suicide wanted to die,” Flatt said. “Without exception they wanted the same thing – they wanted the pain to stop. We need to identify the pain and how we can offer alternatives to stop the pain.”