On Special Assignment: Confronting Native American suicide - KPAX.com | Continuous News | Missoula & Western Montana

On Special Assignment: Confronting Native American suicide

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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said he often feels like the ‘consoler’ in chief when he addressed the Zero Suicide Academy conference in Helena this fall because he’s attended so many funerals of people who've chosen to end their own lives.

Many of those were young Native Americans and Jill Valley went On Special Assignment to learn about what it’s going to take to save lives on the state’s reservations.

Scroll through Josiah Nichols’s Facebook page and you’ll see a 16-year-old who loves his family, has a great head of hair, a basketball player for Two Eagle River School, is a talented Native singer and has scores of friends.

Many of those friends filled the halls of the hospital the night Josiah decided to end his life.

 “I don’t exactly know what happened that day. I just remember getting the phone call -- my phone call. I was just crying and shaking. All I could see was his face and I called him. His phone rang and rang and rang,” Josiah’s mom Sheri Lynn Pierre recalled.

A week before his death was an ominous Facebook post that was followed by words of love and support but didn’t change what was about to happen.  “And my heart, I could feel it shatter. All I wanted was my baby. I just wanted him to open his eyes,” Pierre said.

Suicide hits our Reservations hard with Montana's Native American population having the highest rate of suicide in a state that already has the highest rate in the country.

Josiah is one of 20 confirmed suicides in the Mission Valley community since last November -- and there’s no statistic pointing to how many were attempted.

Gov. Bullock recently launched the Zero Suicide Academy which is a big part of a statewide plan to reduce Native youth suicides.

The goal is to share ideas people can take back and put to use in their own communities in order to examine what’s happening on their own Reservations. While there are no easy answers, the conversation is well underway.

“Suicide isn’t something you can address and it’s going to go away. It’s a symptom of much bigger issues and what we want to think about, what else do we have to do?” said Anna Whiting Sorrell with CSKT Tribal Health. “We have to pull together and see what other Tribes have done as this is an issue of wellness across Indian Country.”

Last spring was a tough one around the Mission Valley with several suicides and even more attempts. It’s a topic that’s now talked about openly in schools -- it has to be.

“We’ve taken an open stance as far as it’s not something that should be pushed behind or not talked about,” said Saint Ignatius High School principal Shawn Hendrickson. “When somebody comes up or has a question or it comes up in class. It’s something that we have agreed as a staff to discuss there or at different times with the students”

It’s an issue that affects young people deeply as they watch their peers and their friends struggle and many believe that suicide has become a bigger issue than bullying.

Student leaders at Saint Ignatius High School went to their teachers and asked for training so they’ll know what to do if they’re confronted with a friend in crisis. They know a student contemplating suicide will often reach out to their peers before their parents.

“It would be nice to know what to do in that situation. That’s what we want -- the leaders to be trained in something so that way if...friends of people do reach out to us, we’ll know how to handle it right away,” senior Sophia Tolbert old MTN News.

There’s no one reason why someone might choose to end their lives. For Native Americans, Tribal leaders say the answer to their pain cannot be suicide – and that pain needs a voice.

“While this is a really sad time for us, it’s also an opportunity for us to put a mark in the sand and do business differently,” Whiting Sorrell said. “We’re saying we need to fix a number of issues. Issues that go back for generations.

Pierre often reads the note her son left behind, searching for answers that aren’t there. She can still see his face in photos, his voice on an iPad --but it’s not the same.

“I can’t see him anymore. I keep waiting for him to come home,” Pierre said. Josiah was loved by so many and his friends and family often leave him messages on his Facebook page.

If you are in crisis, you can text the number 741-741 and type in MT for a free 24/7 text line.

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