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Indian tribes 'losing kids every day' to suicide
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Emmy May has lost five relatives and friends to suicide. (MPR photo/Dan Gunderson)
Experts say teen suicide is an epidemic on Indian reservations across the country. Some of the highest teen suicide rates are on Indian reservations in the Upper Midwest. The U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee holds a hearing Wednesday on teen suicide. The story of one Red Lake teen reflects reality for many in Indian Country.

Red Lake, Minn. — "My name is Emmy May and I am 16 years old. I'm writing my story of how I recovered from depression."

That's how Emmy May began a letter detailing her personal experiences with suicide. Her letter was published in the Red Lake tribal newspaper in March, 2004. It wasn't easy for Emmy to write the letter, and it's not easy to talk about it. She twists a tissue in her hands as she sits at a small table in a sun porch overlooking Red Lake, and reads from the letter. "I was 8 years old when I lost my older brother to suicide," her letter continues.

Emmy May says when her brother died, she was too young to understand why he was gone. She knew he wasn't coming back, and she knew she missed him.

Then, a year later, another brother committed suicide.

At age 9, Emmy May decided she had to be strong for her mother. No one talked much about the suicide, so she kept her pain inside.

These children are crying out, they're screaming at the top of their lungs at this point, giving their lives, saying, 'I am miserable, and I am miserable to the point I'd just as soon not be around anymore.'
- Doug McDonald

Just before her 15th birthday, Emmy May lost a close friend to suicide. The death sent her into an emotional tailspin. She sank into depression, but didn't realize it because she didn't know much about the disease.

She tried to go to school and put on a good front, but was overcome by a feeling of hopelessness.

"I just thought nobody cared about me at all. Like my friends didn't care, my family didn't care. I was just really, really, really down about everything. That's why I was going to try," recalls May. "I tried," is how Emmy May refers to her suicide attempt. She can't bring herself to say much more about it. She still feels guilty for the pain she caused her family.

"I'd lock myself in my room and wouldn't talk to anybody, and I was crying a lot. I mean, I'm not going to lie. I tried before," says May as tears roll down her cheeks. "But I stopped myself. I just thought about my mom and my dad, just thought about them wondering why I did it. That's what stopped me."

Emmy May called a school counselor and asked for help. She spent three days in a psychiatric hospital. She says counseling helped her understand her depression. She was given anti-depressant medication, and after about two weeks she felt ready to go back to school.

The week she returned to school, another friend committed suicide. She was better prepared this time, says May. She understood depression and could intellectualize this loss.

But just a few months later it happened again. She lost a cousin who was one of her closest friends.

"There's so much I remember about her. Mostly her smile," says May. "That was probably one of the toughest ever. Because she was my cousin. She was one of my best friends. I would never expect her to do it."

Emmy May says she's learned to cope. She saw a counselor for awhile, and was on anti-depressants for about a year.

Now she gets relief from writing about her feelings, and talking with her mother, with whom she's developed a much closer relationship. She's not afraid to call a counselor if she's really down.

Emmy May was a senior at Red Lake High School this year and graduated last month. She's still mourning the eight schoolmates who died in the shooting at Red Lake High School in March. She plans to wait a year before going to college, where she wants to study to be a counselor.

May wrote her letter to the newspaper in hopes of getting people to talk about suicide. So far, not much has happened. She says a few people have told her it was a good letter.

May's story isn't all that unusual in Indian Country. But the fact that she talks about it, is. It's a subject many consider private.

Wendy Johnson says every day she sees other mothers who share the painful experience of losing a child, but they never talk about it.

"Maybe that's the biggest barrier. It shouldn't be a private issue," says Johnson.

Her son Andy would have graduated from Red Lake High School this year, but three years ago he committed suicide by hanging himself. The suicide tore Wendy Johnson's family apart.

"Everybody blamed themselves after this. Everybody wanted to know what could they have done, and it doesn't go away. You live with that for the rest of your life," says Johnson. "You can be having the best day of your life and suddenly you think, 'Could I have done something to stop it?'"

Johnson says her 20-year marriage ended, and two of her three remaining children turned to drugs and alcohol. Those two children have been through chemical dependency treatment in the past two years.

This year, on the anniversary of her son's death, Wendy says she held her other two sons, and they all cried together for the first time since Andy died.

She sees that as a sign her family has taken the first step toward healing. But the question that will haunt her for the rest of her life is why her son, an outgoing, apparently happy teenager, would choose to kill himself.

Andy took those answers with him.

Across the nation, American Indian teens commit suicide at a rate at least twice the national average. The rate is much higher in the Upper Midwest and Great Plains, where it's five to seven times higher than the national average, according to an official with the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Across the country, more than half of Indian teens who kill themselves have never been seen by a mental health professional. That may be because there are not enough psychologists or counselors on reservations, or because the teens don't trust counselors, who are often outsiders.

For Doug McDonald, American Indian teen suicide statistics represent the faces of kids he's known, and maybe even tried to help.

"We're losing kids every single day. And we have to do something about it because the numbers are way to high," says McDonald.

McDonald is an Oglala Lakota Sioux from South Dakota, and director of the Indians into Psychology Program at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

The program trains American Indians to return to reservations as mental health professionals. But progress is slow. Only a handful graduate from the doctoral program each year, and McDonald says it's nowhere near enough to meet the need.

American Indian teen suicide is a complex problem with no easy solution, says McDonald. Poverty, substance abuse, and cultural issues all play a role.

There are barely enough mental health providers to respond to crisis situations on most reservations. There's rarely the time for prevention or long-term counseling.

Efforts to help are often stymied by a lack of resources. A successful suicide intervention project on the White Earth reservation recently shut down. The project coordinator says the volunteers who ran it simply burned out.

Doug McDonald says American Indians have been left behind even in the area of psychiatric research. He contends there's less mental health research about American Indians than any other ethnic minority in the United States. That means mental health professionals often don't have critical information about the culture and values of the people they care for.

Attempting suicide has become an acceptable response to a desperate life for American Indian teens, according to Doug McDonald.

"It's almost a popularity contest in some of our Indian youth communities -- to compare cuts on the back of your hand, or compare how many times you've been sent away for being suicidal. It's almost a rite of passage for some of these kids," says McDonald.

McDonald thinks part of the problem is that some Indian kids don't have healthy role models. He says there are many great role models for Indian teens to emulate, but too often when they look to the adults in their life, they see them deal with problems by turning to alcohol, drugs and violence.

Many Indian families lost the ability to parent when a generation grew up in government boarding schools had no parental role models, says McDonald.

Indian communities must come together to lead the effort to save Indian children, McDonald believes, and he's hopeful getting the attention of the U.S. Senate will bring more mental health resources to Indian Country.

"If nothing is done, then look out. Because these children are crying out, they're screaming at the top of their lungs at this point, giving their lives, saying, 'I am miserable, and I am miserable to the point I'd just as soon not be around anymore.' If we don't listen to that, the problem is only going to get worse," says McDonald.

Nothing less than a rapid, sustained response will solve the crisis, McDonald says, because the problem has been building for many years, and can't be fixed by sending a few crisis counseling teams to reservations.