Taking on suicide: Guest speaker aims to share message about prevention, intervention
As a high school student, Arnold Thomas was recognized as one of Nevada's elite football and basketball players. As schools began recruiting him, he was well on his way to achieving his goal of becoming a professional athlete.
But in the spring of his sophomore year, his father committed suicide and Thomas' life was thrown into a tail spin. Looking for ways to cope with his grief and sorry, he turned to alcohol and drugs.
After Thomas turned 18, he stuck a hunting rifle under his chin and pulled the trigger. The gunshot wound severely damaged his face and left him completely blind. He was unable to speak for several years.
With the support of his community, family and friends, along with a renewed will to live, Thomas survived a challenging period of his life and slowly began to put the pieces of his life back together.
Thomas will share his message about suicide prevention and intervention with the public at 7 p.m. Monday at the Red Lake Humanities Center in Red Lake,
He was asked to speak in Red Lake by the Red Lake Youth Council, a group of student leaders who decided suicide prevention and intervention needed to be spoken about at this year's Youth Leadership Conference which begins Tuesday at Red Lake High School.
This year's conference theme is "Miikanaakeyang Giniigaanayi'iiminaan," which means "Making a Path for our Future."
In 2004, the reservation experienced a string of suicides by young people.
Mental health providers on the reservation were seeking ways to enhance suicide intervention beyond counseling and crisis prevention.
Then, in 2005, the reservation experienced a high school shooting tragedy that resulted in 10 people being killed.
While devastating, the incident resulted in the start-up of new community initiatives on the reservation, as well as the formation of the Red Lake Youth Council.
"We really made a concerted effort to address the needs of the youth," said Floyd Jourdain, who took office as tribal chairman in 2004.
Those efforts paid off, at least for a few years. From 2005 to 2007, no completed suicides were reported on the reservation, although there were still suicides being attempted.
But in the last four years, suicide has been on the rise.
Last year, 48 suicides were attempted and two suicides were completed on the reservation, Jourdain said.
In Beltrami County, from 2000 to 2009, the suicide rate per 100,000 was at 16.6 percent, compared to a statewide figure of 11.2 percent, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Jourdain knows first-hand the effect a suicide can have on families and the community. In the past three years, he lost two nephews to suicide.
"Even one suicide has such a profound impact on the community," he said. "Everybody is affected. It rocks the entire community."
A few years ago, members of the Red Lake Youth Council reached out to a youth council from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming for help. In the 1980s, the Wind River Reservation experienced a high rate of suicides that far exceeded the national average.
"They had experienced the same thing we were experiencing here - teen suicide," Jourdain said.
One of the members of the Wind River Youth Council recommended the Red Lake Youth Council ask Thomas to speak at this year's leadership conference.
Bringing the issue of suicide into the limelight was an idea spurred from the student members of the Red Lake Youth Council, Jourdain said.
Allowing students to have a voice was one of the reasons the council was started, he added.
"It's all about empowerment," he said. "The youth council saw this is an issue that needed to be addressed."
One of the challenges to preventing suicide, Jourdain said, as one incident can sometimes start a domino effect.
Tom Barrett, director of chemical health programs on the Red Lake Indian Reservation and member of the Red Lake School District's Board of Education, said when youth lose someone close, they often do not know how to cope through the grieving process.
"When one commits suicide, they don't know how to get closure from that," he said. "You get the copycat sort of thing. They are feeling so bad about it but they don't know how to get closure. We're hoping we can provide them with help during this conference."
Jourdain said the Red Lake Indian Reservation is approaching the matter of suicide as a community issue.
"We're stepping up our suicide prevention awareness to be there for the youth in the community, especially going into summer, when there is a lot of activity out there," Jourdain said.