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Tribal youth using digital media to battle silent epidemic: suicide

Tribal youth from across the Northwest work on comic book panels on another track of the recent health promotion conference.
Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
Tribal youth from across the Northwest work on comic book panels on another track of the recent health promotion conference.

PORTLAND – According to government statistics, American Indians are 70 percent more likely to die by suicide than the general population. The high suicide rate has been called a "silent epidemic." But it's silent no more.

Prevention workers at a health workshop in Portland are hoping teen-generated web videos, music and even a comic book can save lives.

Almost one in four Native American youths has attempted suicide according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  17-year-old Brandon Trejo, who lives on a reservation in eastern Washington, knows a face behind those stats.

"One of my friends, he tried overdosing on a bunch of pills. It didn't work," he recalls. "He ended up going to the hospital and getting his stomach pumped."

Trejo was shocked and still doesn't have answers for why it happened.

‘Danger in the air’

Tribal member Sarah Hull has felt the same shock, not just once, but multiple times.  The 16-year-old goes to school off-reservation in suburban Gresham, Oregon.

"I know from personal experience living in a Native American community and being around people, depression is really common because for a lot of people it's hard to find your way to your culture or find your way to a certain passion when you don't who you are and you're confused," Hull says.

Sarah's mother says there've been times she could feel "danger in the air." The family has found an antidote in music.

Hull's music is part of an anti-suicide, healthy living workshop put on by the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board. The regional agency invited 60 students from different tribes throughout the Northwest to come to Portland for a week ... supported by a federal grant.

Shaping the message

Suicide prevention coordinator Colbie Caughlan says the staff wanted help crafting health promotion messages that resonate with young people.

"Youth learn from youth," Caughlan says. "That's what has happened forever."

Conference organizers arranged presentations about suicide warning signs and healthy, drug free living. Then they set the young people loose with video camera, drawing paper, notebooks or a music producer.

Eventually, the hope is to move the resulting material online and unleash a wave of positive social networking media.

"If they say, 'Oh, then I went to a leadership conference or I did a suicide prevention training and it taught me something so amazing that I actually helped save my best friend's life,' those are the things people are going to hold with them and tell their friends," says Caughlan.

Caughlan adds that the initiative was inspired by a web-based suicide prevention strategy that found success in Australia.

Ending the stigma

Todd Denny has led musical workshops on Northwest reservations for a decade now. He says technology could be a means to break the stigma around a difficult, sensitive topic.

"One of the big challenges with suicide in all communities, not just tribal communities, is the silence and the secrecy," Denny says. "So a program like this allows people to break through those barriers of silence and secrecy, to express themselves, to tell their stories."

Over the course of a week, some of the teens did that through traditional Native American music. Others explored the suicide prevention theme through more contemporary genres.

Playing the guitar is 19-year-old Jordan Hill of Gresham.  He says he chose his lyrics carefully.

"Every song that I've written is a message to somebody, Hill explains. "Which is why when I finally put out the album that I'm working on, I want to name it 'Memoir' because it's a message to everybody.”

The media campaign launches this winter. 

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Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.