Dealing with the dark side: The Navajo Nation seeks to address the chronic problem of suicide

Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez learns about services available to community members at the Navajo Department of Behavioral Health Services.

Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez learns about services available to community members at the Navajo Department of Behavioral Health Services. Nez and a team of professional counselors spoke to Shiprock High School students about suicide, reported to be at epidemic levels throughout the reservation. Photo by Sonja Horoshko

The sprawling 25,000-square-mile Navajo reservation has been jolted by a continuing series of suicides beginning in 2009, when nine teens in Ft. Wingate, Ariz., took their own lives. Those deaths preceded 15 teen suicides in Thoreau, another reservation town only 60 miles away. Although news of the Thoreau suicides triggered a state of emergency and drew media attention to the crisis, reservation communities continue to endure the loss of more people, especially youths, through suicide.

Most recently, Aneth/Montezuma Creek in San Juan County, Utah, lost nine people to suicide during a period from early spring to late fall 2015. One was a counselor and respected member of the community. All the rest were 14 to 28 years old.

The Centers for Disease Control says suicide rates increase when links to family, peer, and community relationships are weak or non-existent. The risk also increases when there is a predisposition to suicide in the family or peer community, or when a person faces unexpected and seemingly insoluble problems.

The reservation is beautiful and resource- rich, but poverty is extreme and employment near home almost nonexistent. Economic despair depletes self-esteem, while impacts of colonization linger on the Navajo Nation today from as far back as the 1862 U.S. government scorch-and-burn campaign that led to the incarceration of the Diné at Bosque Redondo in New Mexico.

Since that time, the list of programs that Navajo people refer to as “relocation, removal and extinction campaigns” has grown. It includes obligatory boarding school, natural-resource conflicts, broken treaty obligations, water-treaty disputes, the Bennet Freeze on economic development, and contamination from the uranium and nuclear industry.

In addition, life on the rez is changing as electricity becomes available to more homes. Teens are connected to the world beyond the borders through television and social media. The outside world is accessible, but without an income, self-respect and a strong family identity, it is not a reality. For some youths, the mix creates an unsolvable conundrum of plummeting self-esteem, identity crises and entrapment, more than they can manage on their own.

Many losses

Communities on the reservation are small and none is untouched by the phenomenon. “There is a huge suicide epidemic across all Indian Country,” said Amber Kanazbah Crotty, Navajo Nation council delegate for Toadlena/Two Grey Hills, Red Valley Tse’alnaozt’i’i’, Sheepsprings, Beclabito and Gadiiahi/To’Koi, all communities near Shiprock, N.M., and the Four Corners Monument.

“It is a health emergency layered with historical trauma, identity crisis and violence. All of it compounding a person’s decisions to make that choice,” Crotty said. “I lost a professional colleague in Montezuma Creek to suicide earlier this year. I felt this personally and the loss really wakened us up, really changed how we approach it, it broke out who we target. It broke the stereotype of who completes suicide. It needs to be discussed in the community.”

By Sept. 2, Navajo Nation council delegate Nathaniel Brown, who represents Chilchinbeto, Dennehotso and Kayenta in Arizona, presented a report from the Utah Navajo Health Care System regarding recent suicides in Montezuma Creek and an attempted suicide in Monument Valley.

According to Brown, the suicides sparked efforts to promote awareness. They occurred in close-knit communities and have deeply impacted youths and families in the area, a press release from Speaker Lorenzo Bates explained.

“They’re all related, they are all working together – they are all hurting,” said Brown. “We are in the process of developing a suicide intervention team that would aid community members and young people who may be having difficult issues at home or in school. The program will provide counseling, and prevention resources for support.

Council Delegate Tom Chee (Shiprock) said he was very saddened to hear of the recent suicides, and said in his experience as an educator he found that some Navajo students felt disconnected from their cultural identity.

“We stress K’é [Navajo tradition] to our children, but do they really know what it means if we are not teaching them about it?” asked Chee. “Many of the issues that our people face are the loss of language, loss of traditions, and loss of culture – resulting in feeling the lack of belonging.”

At the conclusion of the report, Brown said it is important for other youths to speak with their troubled peers and create a more comfortable atmosphere to share one’s thoughts and feelings.

He added that the council must play a major role in aiding suicide prevention, such as drafting legislation to strengthen current programs and to provide additional funding to promote suicide awareness throughout the Navajo Nation.

Toxic effect?

The Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King Mine spill near Silverton, Colo., discharged more than 3 million gallons of contaminated wastes into Cement Creek and the Animas River that eventually made their way into the San Juan River in New Mexico and Utah.

As the Diné learned about the toxic plume travelling toward their farmlands, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye shut the waterways. No water flowed to the farms and ranches, the people’s livelihood. The Diné voiced worries about how long the water would be tainted, how it would affect their livestock, and whether anyone would want to buy crops irrigated from the river.

Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency admitted liability, began the clean-up and transported water by truck to the farmlands, Begaye pushed for a financial settlement with the EPA that would reflect the impact on an already beleaguered community. In November he testified before Congress that the toxic waste spill had burdened Na vajo communities with additional stress. He said eight people killed themselves in communities impacted by the spill.

The river runs through the larger Shiprock farming community, including Upper Fruitland and Gadii’ahi/ Tokoi, and eventually crosses the Four Corners into Aneth and Montezuma Creek. But the majority of the suicides in Montezuma Creek and the region did not occur after the spill.

Crotty, who represents the Navajo Northern Agency on the Health, Education and Human Services committee, told the Free Press there were reports of increases in family stress, and children’s accounts of severe concern about their parents. She considers the event another layer of tension adding to the larger historical trauma.

“My people have been directly impacted by that and in fact it hurts at the core. The spill carried a mental-health aspect that can contribute to these epidemic suicidal thoughts, reservation-wide distress.”

Vice President Jonathan Nez said he couldn’t say it was the specific cause of the suicides, but, “There was so much trauma associated with the spill. The effect of the spill is still there.”

A proclamation and a tour

The Office of the President and Vice President issued a proclamation on Dec. 4 declaring the third week in December as Suicide Prevention Week, to promote dialogue and awareness between departments and in communities about suicide prevention and available resources.

“It is our goal to empower individuals, families and communities to make positive choices while restoring hope, self-sufficiency and determination,” said President Russell Begaye. “The loss of one life is one too many.”

Begaye and Nez launched a week-long tour Dec. 14-19 called “Building Communities of Hope.” It addressed suicide prevention and awareness at 12 Navajo high schools, a youth center and individual chapters in the evenings.

In addition, the two leaders signed an executive order on Nov. 30 instructing all tribal departments to coordinate resources to address suicide prevention, response, and post-suicide counseling.

The reservation-wide tour stopped in communities in all agencies. At Winslow High School, Begaye asked the students to repeat positive statements about themselves.

“I am special. I am beautiful. I am valuable,” they repeated.

“Hope has so much value because it means that you’re looking beyond your current situation,” Begaye said. “Hang on to hope and you will cherish your life.”

The need for dialogue about suicide prevention was reinforced by Bryce Anderson. At Kayenta, Ariz., the superintendent of the Unified School District told the students the community had suffered the tragedy of a murder-suicide only two days before the tour’s stop in the town.

“This is an epidemic that is not often spoken about and we need to tear down these walls and communicate about it,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be critical to build on these resources from here.”

Delegate Crotty helped organize the tour’s strategy for outreach. “A lot of the kids we saw on the tour were breaking down in front of us, tears from them. The tour is helping open the door to parents who are saying that they don’t know how to converse with their youth, and the tour is opening the door to a safe place to ask for help, removing the stigma of ‘we are not a good parent.’ I think this effort is unpacking generations of guilt because we are talking about it with everyone, finally, and offering community hope and human interconnectedness. It’s so preventable.”

Direct talk

When the tour came to Phil Hall in Shiprock, hundreds of high-school teens flowed through the doors on the cold December afternoon. Nez watched from the bench in the lobby. The team of behavioral health professionals who put this tour together with the president and vice-president are focusing on tradition, the family and communication between generations, he explained to the Free Press.

“We must address suicide directly and find a way around the taboo of talking about death,” Nez said. “The language and culture has to return back to the household. We have to open up the taboo and talk to each other about suicide. Our households have to include conversations with the parents and grandparents. In fact, we are challenging the students we meet on this tour. We are challenging our people to return to being together at one meal a day, asking them to turn off the cell phone. Turn off the television. Talk with each other. Ask about each other. Ask about how the day went for other family members. Communicate.”

One life taken through suicide is one too many, he added. “We must develop hope.”

During his opening remarks to the subdued student audience, Nez was forthright. “Suicide is happening in every part of the [Navajo] Nation. Two days ago I lost a friend. He was 40, the same age as me, and my community is grieving now with his family and friends.

“I am here to tell you that we love you. You are important, you are part of creating a better, stronger and healthier nation. We want to give you the tools, the information and have this discussion about suicide and how to help each other out. Suicide can be prevented by being a family again.”

Nez’s style was that of an uncle, a family member, a clan brother, a grandfather. He spoke with a warmth politicians rarely display, breaking through to the silent audience as he used an example of historical trauma turned into strength. Nez asked, “How many of you know about The Long Walk [the incarceration at Bosque Redondo]?”

Many hands shot up. The tension in the auditorium at the beginning of the program was dissipating.

“Now imagine what we [the Diné] went through on the Long Walk,” he said. “Our elders had a vision for each and every one of you. They didn’t give up. They didn’t quit and now we are a large tribe again. We persevered. We are 100 years down the road and strong.

“That same blood that went through your ancestors is the same blood that runs through you. There should be absolutely no reason to take your life.”

Local counselors from the Navajo Department of Behavioral Health Service explained that when dealing with a troubled individual, it’s best to ask direct questions, be understanding, and listen. The team emphasized not being judgmental or blaming.

At every stop on the tour, a local professional, counselor or doctor presented tools and strategies to facilitate discussion and offer local resources, counseling services and contact lists.

A follow-up report from the president and vice president’s office included a lesson from Navajo comedian and motivational speaker Pax Harvey, who joined the presentation at Kayenta, where he spoke seriously about dealing with grief and depression after recently losing his brother to suicide.

“You don’t know what grief or sorrow is until you’ve lost a loved one,” he said.

When grief struck hardest, Harvey said the teachings of his grandmother helped carry him through. His grandmother instilled in him the virtues of getting up and running to the east before the sun rose. She told him this discipline would prepare him for difficult times.

Beyond traditional teachings, Harvey also encouraged seeking help in combating depression.

“Depression can sneak up on you. We’re taught that you’re not supposed to cry or be emotional. That’s how some of us were raised,” he said. “Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. The only way to get through pain is to hit it dead on. You have to go through it and deal with it.”

Executive staff assistant and organizer of the tour Yvonne Kee Billison said addressing suicide at the community level is tough, yet the impacts it has on communities can be devastating.

“We need to bring the numbers down because right now the numbers are high. To do this we are going to need everyone’s help,” she said. “We have choices and we can make everything better for ourselves. Each of us needs to know our lives are worth living.”

Navajo people in need of help for another person should call the dispatch numbers for Navajo police. Help is also available on the Facebook page Navajo Nation Project K’e Youth Suicide Prevention, and from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).


From January 2016.