Brightening the spirits, breaking the silence

Indigenous ministries tackle suicide

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Sep 10, 2014

[Episcopal News Service] The United States and Canada may be separated by a border but Native Americans on both sides of it share a deadly reality: their rate of suicide surpasses that of the general population.

So much so that “we recently had an international consultation with people both from the States and Canada here at Six Nations” near Brantford, Ontario, according to the Rt. Rev. Mark MacDonald, the Anglican Church of Canada’s national indigenous bishop.

“We realize there’s an official border between us, but we’re dealing with many of the same issues,” he said. “In general terms, there’s a much higher suicide rate among indigenous people in North America than the general population (see related story here) and the causes are many and complex.”

For example, said MacDonald: “every single person at this international gathering had been struck by suicide in a very intimate and personal way, so there’s just a sense that it never goes away. It’s just always there and it’s a tormenting reality for most indigenous people.”

“When suicide happens in a family, to a family, they sort of go quiet,” according to the Rev. Norman Casey, rector of the Parish of Six Nations and a member of the Micmac Nation, of Quebec.

“They hide; they don’t know how to react, don’t know how to say it out loud. It’s the kind of tragedy that makes you go underground and we want to change that, to help people to heal and the only way to heal is to talk about it, to be able to cry about it, to be able to get hugged by the community.”

Moving through the silence to engaging prevention awareness and community partnerships involves excruciating pain but it is the path to healing, Casey said.

“We want to get to a point where people can talk about this. Yes, it hurts and yes, it’s hard. But, if we can get people to open up and talk, that will help to alleviate some of the pain, and we can feel good things grow out of that.”

In Seattle: Speaking out, raising awareness
The day before he ended his life, 18-year-old James and his mom Elsie Dennis filled out his applications for college scholarships together.

“Yet, instead of him going to his senior breakfast and having his senior class photo taken, we were having funeral and burial services for him. It was devastating,” said Dennis, a communications consultant for the Episcopal Church’s Indigenous Ministries Office who lives in Seattle.

Elsie's last photo taken with her son James, 18, who ended his life in June 2013.

Elsie’s last photo taken with her son James, 18, who ended his life in June 2013.

That was June 7, 2013, and “we’re still numb. But we also want to help others and help other families reach out. If we can prevent one person from dying by suicide, we’ve been successful,” she said.

Luminaria commemorating James at the Out of Darkness Walk in Seattle in June

Luminaria commemorating James at the Out of Darkness Walk in Seattle in June

She advocates for liturgies and prayers designed for “loss survivors” like her and her family, and raised money for prevention awareness through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s “Out of Darkness Walk” in Seattle in June.

The whole goal “is to remove the stigma from mental illness and suicide,” Dennis said. “I want people to get help because suicide is preventable and as long as that stigma is in place, then people are very hesitant and avoid seeking help,” she said.

Montana Assisting Bishop Carol Gallagher said suicide prevention awareness is included among materials for the Bishops Native Collaborative (BNC), a training initiative for Native American clergy within the Episcopal Church, and also with White Bison, a recovery and wellness nonprofit agency that partners with the Office of Indigenous Ministries.

“One of our hopes is to bring positive leadership roles to our young people and find ways to help them learn the tools they might need to get beyond the dark places that seem like there’s no hope and no future … stepping aside from shame and talking about how God embraces us despite those things we might feel ashamed of or a failure about,” said Gallagher, a Cherokee, who is also BNC bishop missioner.

Dennis, a member of the Shuswap Nation, is left to wonder what caused her son James to end his life, since he didn’t ask for help or seek counseling.

Although suicide rates are “high for Native youth on the reservation,” Dennis’s family lived off-reservation and she imagines “it was difficult for [James], being a young Native man and trying to fit in. It’s like having your feet in two worlds, the Anglo world and the Native world and trying to mesh those and live those out.”

She believes he, like others contemplating suicide, “held on for as long as possible. Each day is lived in darkness. I think James held on as long as he could, until the last day of his senior year of high school; I think he did that for me and for his dad.”

Standing Rock: vigilant and proactive
The Rev. Canon John Floberg, canon missioner for the Episcopal Church community on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, said seven or eight suicides in the last year or so have heightened vigilance because “often we don’t get a lot of warning.” The number of suicides was “pretty traumatic” for the community of about 8,000.

“It’s always on our radar screen,” said Floberg. “The horror of it has been muted, and that’s a pretty horrible thing that’s taking place.”

A few years ago, he was preparing to go to the funeral of his 17-year-old nephew – who had ended his own life – when he noticed what sounded like suicidal thoughts on the Facebook page of a reservation youth.

“So, while I’m driving to my nephew’s funeral, I’m on the phone with people to go and intervene, to get to her house, to get in physical contact with her or a parent or guardian,” he said. “If I have suspicions anyone is considering it, we get an adult in immediate contact with them. We will not leave them alone unless they’re able to tell us they’re at a place where they feel safe and not planning to do themselves any harm.

“If a kid can’t promise that, then we take the next steps, either going to the emergency room where they can be followed up by a doctor or to a medical facility to address what’s going on, but we don’t leave it to chance,” he said.

Community partnerships with school counselors, hospital social workers and others factor into suicide prevention efforts, he added. If a suicide is completed, “the therapist will call us in to work side by side with counselors, knowing that a lot of the kids have a connection to us through youth ministry. Often, we are first responders to kids who are dealing with somebody else’s suicide.”

In his experience, suicide “is not based on an incident. Sometimes, it is based on a lifelong series of incidents. What happened in the past didn’t get resolved. It feels like it’s never going to come to an end and suicide becomes a way of making things stop.”

Whenever a suicide is completed, Floberg immediately seeks out that person’s closest friends, just in case, he says, adding: “We want to intervene.”

‘The suicides just don’t stop’
A few weeks after the Rev. Nancy Bruyere became a part-time program coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada’s Suicide Prevention Program for Indigenous Ministries, a cousin took her own life.

That was in June 2013 and Bruyere is unable to hold back the tears. Within the past few months, “we’ve had two suicides and one of them in my own family,” she said.

“My own nephew – he was just 25. It really shook us up. None of us expected him to do something like that – and then another young man, exactly a week later. The suicides just don’t stop.”

Bruyere, 54, an Ojibwe, who herself attempted suicide twice as a young person, said that, while “I can relate to the feelings of hopelessness, depression, shame …” she presses on, to raise awareness, offer hope.

“Even though people don’t like talking about suicide, we need to start talking about it,” she said. “One of the fears, I think, is that if you start talking about it, that more people will attempt it in our community. We need to talk more about it.”

She and the Rev. Cynthia Patterson, a non-native, offer suicide prevention resources and help implement local workshops and trainings in western and eastern Canada, respectively. The high incidence of suicide stems from the legacy of colonialism and residential schools “with multi-generational removal from culture and removal from community living and parenting skills,” Patterson told ENS. “It was like cultural genocide.”

The residential school system began in the mid 1800s and ended in the 1970s; Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in a 2008 official apology, said two primary objectives of the residential school system “were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures and to assimilate them into the dominant culture.

“These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal … Today we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.”

Casey said the schools stripped several generations of culture, self-esteem, parental love and guidance, subsequently creating patterns of inherited generational despair and … resulting in the high suicide rates across the country among First Nation peoples.”

Churches now have a role to play, whether through creating liturgies and prayers, or hosting awareness-raising adult forums or Lenten studies, Patterson said.

“You don’t want the family to feel that their loved one is abandoned by Jesus, because Jesus loves everyone and you want to reinforce that.”

The music camp held in August at the Parish of Six Nations near Brantford, Ontario.

The music camp held in August at the Parish of Six Nations near Brantford, Ontario.

Music, dance and brightening spirits
A summer music camp for children aged 8 to 14 in August at the Parish of Six Nations grew out of a devastating suicide, and it just keeps on growing.

Called “Brightening the Spirits, Breaking the Silence,” the church and community came together to make use of donated instruments – fiddles, recorders, drums, mandolins, guitars and keyboards – “because children are affected by suicide greatly in this community and we have no arts program in the school here, mostly because of lack of funding,” said Casey.

“We learned barn dancing and square dancing and singing,” he said of the weeklong experience. “We hope it goes viral. We’re trying to not only brighten the spirits of young people, but to raise their self-esteem, to make them feel good about themselves, to give them a future, make them feel important, that they belong. That will help us and help them to change their future.”

Dorothy Russell-Patterson said the idea for the camp just came to her one day. “It seemed this would be the right thing to do … to reach out and try and make some sense of what one is experiencing and not be left in despair and isolation.”

But it’s more than a program, “it’s a relationship with the community,” she said. “It evolved on its own because I lost my son. He suicided and we wouldn’t be as far as we are today as a family without that relationship, without the community and my family, our neighbors, our church family,” said Russell-Patterson, 68.

“I know personally about five suicides within the last year,” she added. “As other people experienced loss, it seemed almost natural to want to reach out to them and help them share, help share their grief so that they wouldn’t feel isolated.”

The camp became a way to do that; now plans are underway for a similar afterschool opportunity. The 22 children who attended in August “are going to be our core group to come in after school and begin to plant some seeds and to encourage others.”

With financial support from the Anglican Church’s Healing Fund she hopes “it will be a model that could be shared with other First Nations across Canada.” A member of the Payuga Nation, Russell-Patterson envisions talking circles, healing services and the eventual creation of a healing center – with suicide prevention as a backdrop.

More immediately, on Sept. 10, World Suicide Prevention Awareness Day, “we’re going to make 200 lunches, bag them up and have a giveaway in the park in the heart of the village for anyone who wants to come, and we’ll tell them about what we’re doing.”

In many ways, the music camp and afterschool initiatives pay tribute to her son, Adam, who was 37 when he ended his life Feb. 7, 2011. “He showed no sign of anything, there was no warning,” said Russell-Patterson, a retired nurse who has taught at the Mohawk College and at the University of British Columbia.

“He was the kindest, gentlest man,” she recalled. “He had a degree in classical music. He played guitar and piano, interpreted music, could tell you the history of a piece and was a terrific athlete. He was not a drinker; he didn’t take drugs, he didn’t have problems that were shown by stress-related activities,” she said.

He had gone into the construction business and “worked the week before he took his own life. Honest to God, he just simply walked out one morning and into the bush and … ” Breaking into sobs, she continued: “I just don’t know why. My husband found him.”

Gathering strength, she added: “In living through it and knowing the deepest pain a mother could feel, I think I could find it somewhere to maybe help somebody else that’s also in that pain.”

Comforted by the knowledge Adam “is in a good place,” she added: “It’s important to recognize the person you’ve lost. Not the death, but the life, their contributions to the lives they’ve touched with love, to the goodness they’ve left. We can help each other through it and deal with the pain.

“That is what keeps me going, anyway.”

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.