Students in Washinton town lead suicide prevention group

Phil Ferolito
White Swan, Washington (AP) June 2011

Tedra Spencer says she will never forget the text message she received one night from a close high school friend thanking her for being in her life.

Something was wrong, Spencer thought.

“Basically, she was telling me good-bye,” says Spencer, a 16-year-old junior at White Swan High School. “I realized that she was in a bad place and needed help.”

Spencer kept texting her friend, asking her if she was bothered by anything. The girl eventually admitted to swallowing an entire bottle of Tylenol. Spencer immediately called a friend of the girl's mother for help. The girl was then taken to a hospital, where her stomach was pumped. That was a year ago February. And the girl is alive today thanks to Spencer.

Not everyone is as fortunate in this rural community of roughly 3,000 residents deep within the Yakama reservation. Since 2006, seven young people between the ages of 14 and 22 have taken their own lives. Particularly alarming were four suicides last year within a four-month period.

It's no secret that Indian Country suffers a suicide rate higher than the national average. From 1999 to 2004, the suicide rate for Native Americans/Alaska Natives was 10.84 per 100,000, higher than the overall U.S. rate of 10.75 per 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The same report also showed that Native Americans/Alaska Natives had the highest suicide rate -- 27.99 per 100,000 -- among young men between the ages of 15 and 24. The only other group remotely close was 12.80 for African Americans in the same age group.

In response to the most recent string of suicides in White Swan, a student-led group called the Dream Makers decided last October to get people to talk about the problem and find solutions.

The group of roughly 15 middle and high school students began handing out wallet-size cards to students listing the signs of suicide on one side and contact information for prevention and other services on the other.

The students were trained in suicide prevention by a specialist from the Indian Health Services. They then held a school assembly to pass their knowledge on to other students.

Since the effort started, the school district hasn't lost one student to suicide. And school counselors have seen something unprecedented: 38 referrals from students suffering from depression or other mental health issues. Of those, eight involved students contemplating suicide.

Chelsey Sheppard, 15, recalls helping another student last year who was thinking about suicide while battling depression brought on by family problems. The boy had withdrawn from friends and kept to himself.

“So I reached out to him,” she says, explaining that she kept talking to him whenever she saw him.

“Then he started telling me about his life and why he thought about ending his life,” she says. “He was seriously thinking about it.”

Sheppard directed him to her mother, the school's psychologist, and he got help. “The bottom line is it's about the kids -- instead of being victims -- they want to be proactive,” says school substance abuse counselor Joel Tannehill, who heads the Dream Makers. “They want some control in their community.”

Last month, the group's effort to tackle an issue that so profoundly affects the health of a community not only won the praise of peers but garnered the top award at the Spring Youth Forum, organized by the state Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery and the state Attorney General's Office.

At the statewide forum in Grand Mound, in Thurston County, 42 teams -- more than 350 students -- competed. After a vote, Dream Makers won the top prize, a first-place plaque and a trip next year to the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America national leadership training in Washington, D.C.. They'll get $4,000 in scholarship assistance to help pay for the trip.

White Swan High principal Dana Jarnecke said she is impressed with the students' poise in confronting an issue most people find difficult to even talk about.

“It just shows that they care and have some compassion for what they are doing and their support is really needed at the school,” Jarnecke said. “We have a lot of issues with alcohol, drugs and suicide in our area and (the group) is letting students know that there is another way of life.”

Nestled amid sprawling hop fields and vineyards, White Swan is far removed from social service agencies or crisis centers.

Poverty is high and opportunity slim with a sawmill and fieldwork as the main sources of employment. Until a year ago, when the Yakama Nation Tribal Police opened a substation, the community largely was not policed.

Tannehill describes suicide as an environmental problem.

“There's a lack of law enforcement -- what better place to be for a drunk and drug addict,” he says. “There's an attitude of there's nobody out here to bust me. When you've got kids who come out and tell you that, you know something is wrong.”

But the police substation is helping and the Dream Makers are aiming higher, looking to address social issues and otherwise spread their message of hope. Most recently, the group organized a penny drive that brought in $1,874 to help a 9-year-old boy suffering from brain cancer.

The group also helps organize the annual Spring Jam event, a host of week-long activities including a basketball tournament geared to keep kids busy and away from alcohol and drugs during spring break.

Having kids talk to one another is probably the most powerful force students bring to the problem, Tannehill says.

“There's a barrier between kids and adults,” he said. “Some of the trauma comes from adults so they don't trust adults. But they'll talk to each other. And no one wants to talk about suicide -- the kids just want to change the environment at school so it's OK to talk about suicide.”

Sheppard says just because a student appears withdrawn doesn't mean he or she won't accept help.

“They can't reach out, but still need someone to reach out to them,” she said. “When people are in a dark place, what they really need is to remember how good things really are. All they need is a friend.”