Tour focuses on suicide discussion, prevention

Noel Lyn Smith

SHIPROCK – Delivering the message that it is all right to talk about suicide and suicide prevention, the “Building Communities of Hope” tour visited the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center here on Thursday.

The six-day tour was organized by the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President to promote discussion and awareness about suicide on the reservation.

Suicide rates are high among Native American and Alaska Native populations with 40 percent of all Native American suicides involving people ages 15 through 24, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“It’s a serious discussion that we need to have on the Navajo Nation,” tribal Vice President Jonathan Nez said.

In comments to Shiprock High School students, Nez talked about how Navajo culture dictates that subjects like suicide are not discussed because it is viewed as wishing ill on individuals, families or communities. Rather than ignoring dialogue, it is time to shed light on the issue and open the door to communication, he said.

Starting that communication is one of the purposes of the tour, as is providing communities with the tools to talk and seek assistance, Nez said.

Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez gives a speech Thursday during the Building Communities of Hope Tour stop at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center in Shiprock.

“Once we give that information, we can have a discussion — Navajo Nation wide with our families, our friends, our relatives, our community members — about suicide and the seriousness,” he said.

The vice president added suicide is not limited to certain age groups or areas on the Navajo Nation because it is “happening in every part” and “affects every age.”

Nez also challenged students to turn off their television sets and cell phones and “bring your parents back to the dinner table and have a discussion.”

“You want to know how suicide can be prevented. It’s to begin to be a family once again,” he said.

Another aspect of the tour is to inform individuals about the resources available to them within their communities. That element was addressed by the Navajo Regional Behavioral Health Center; the tribe’s Department of Health, Community Health Representatives and Office of Environmental Health; Iiná Counseling; the Navajo Treatment Center for Children and Families; Shiprock High counselors and the Office of Diné Y.O.U.T.H., all of which distributed packets for students to take home.

Michelle Brandser, clinical director for the Navajo Regional Behavioral Health Center, gives a presentation Thursday at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center in Shiprock.

Michelle Brandser, clinical director at the Navajo Regional Behavioral Health Center, shared information about identifying some signals an individual may display when he or she is thinking about suicide.

Among the signs are a change in a person’s language or behaviors, and people should not be afraid to ask whether someone is thinking about suicide.

“We have to take the time, if we’re going to ask that direct of a question, to listen to the response,” Brandser said, adding there should be no judgment toward the response.

“We don’t want you to give up because there is help out there,” she said.

Echohawk Lefthand, health promotion specialists for Indian Health Services, talks Thursday during the Building Communities of Hope Tour at Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center in Shiprock.

Echohawk Lefthand, a health promotion specialist at Four Corners Regional Health Center in Red Mesa, Ariz., reiterated it is acceptable to ask if a person is having suicidal thoughts.

“When we ask the question sometimes we get scared … sometimes we feel like we might be planting a seed in someone’s brain. That’s a total myth,” Lefthand said.

He added that opening the door to discussion is “courageous.”

Lefthand has been making presentations about suicide awareness and prevention for years on the Navajo Nation and started his work after attending applied suicide intervention skills training.

“Slowly, you can see the need for it,” he said about tribal communities increasing awareness about the issue.

“There’s a way you can talk about suicide to where you are not directly talking about suicide, but about the life cycle,” he said in an interview after the tour stop.

Shiprock High School students and communtiy members applaud Thursday during the Building Communities of Hope Tour at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center in Shiprock.

Throughout the event, Yvonne Kee-Billison, an executive staff member in the president’s office, asked students to say, “Sihasin,” which means “hope” in the Navajo language.

“What I need you to do is to have hope,” Kee-Billison said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.