Sharing stories of hope
As National Suicide Prevention Month comes to a close, NAYA recently invited guest bloggers to share their thoughts on reasons why suicide continues to impact Indian Country to such an extent, and how building opportunities to talk about the issue can build hope.
Content warning: These articles discuss issues that some community members may find difficult, including suicide, sexual abuse, and substance abuse. We encourage readers to practice good self-care. And we thank the authors for acknowledging that bringing these issues into the light may be a difficult step, but that it is long overdue. We share their belief that sharing our stories is the first step in breaking down lingering taboos, making necessary connections, and building hope.
If you or a loved one is struggling with depression or considering suicide as the solution, some available resources are:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
- Trevor Project Lifeline 1-866-488-7386
- Veterans Crisis Line 1-800-273-8255
- Survivors of Suicide Loss 1-619-482-0297
- If you find yourself or a loved one in a life-threatening emergency, please call 911.
- Know the warning signs
Taking suicide out of the shadows: There is hope!
By Julie Woochuk
Suicide. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to think about it. When we do talk about it, we use words like “committed” suicide that imply a crime or sin, and further stigmatize suicide.
The thing is, some of us do think about suicide, or are worried that a loved one is thinking about ending their life. To destigmatize suicide, we need to learn to speak about it comfortably. We can learn to be aware of suicide warning signs, such as:
- loss of interest in activities
- relapse with alcohol or drugs
- talking about suicide
- unexplained mood changes
To listen and understand that if we, or a loved one is thinking about suicide, that we are not weak, or broken, or criminal. If we are struggling with thoughts of suicide, we can reach out. There is hope.
SUICIDE IS PREVENTABLE. If we are worried about a loved one, we can ask them if they are thinking about taking their life and listen. There are resources available 24/7 that can be accessed if you or a loved one is struggling with thoughts of suicide or coping with a loss to suicide.
Together, we can save lives.
Julie Woochuk is a counselor at Southern Indian Health Council, Inc., Kumeyaay Family Services in California.
NAYA: Let’s start with your story. Please share whatever you feel most comfortable sharing.
I grew up on reservation in an alcoholic and abusive household. My mother was never home and when she left us alone, we were sexually abused. My dad died at an early age.
Once I got to my teenage years, I had a lot of anger toward my mom for not protecting me. Then I found that alcohol killed the pain I was going through, so I could make it through another day. I wasn’t able to feel or to love, because that wasn’t part of what I experienced growing up. I didn’t know how to get close to people.
I didn’t know how to reach out for help, and even then, I thought people wouldn’t help me anyway. Still, I went through the years thinking I had it together because I had figured out how to stuff those feelings away. I really thought I had it under control. But then alcohol turned into drugs and I developed an addiction. It brought me to a terrible state.
It finally came to a head when it was like I couldn’t feel anything. I felt like I had no soul left. I didn’t know how to stop the pain or reach out or deal with it constructively. The pain became greater than wanting to live. I felt hopeless.
When I made my suicide attempt, I was in such a bad, dark state. I couldn’t see any way out of the hopeless and dark feelings. Those are days I never want to experience again.
But today, I take care of myself. I make sure my spiritual self is in balance. Every day is a good day—even the worst days—because I know I will make it through. On dark days I have people now to reach out to.
Colonization, generations of structural racism, and lack of opportunities can contribute to a feeling of hopelessness on reservation and urban communities. Hopelessness can fuel suicidal thoughts & actions among our people. Was this part of your experience?
I grew up being colonized as a Native living on the reservation. Because there was always a separation there between Natives and non-Natives, it made it hard to reach out. I grew up thinking White people were out to get us because I was constantly made fun of in school and experienced so much racism.
Growing up in that in that environment, you start shutting down. You start believing there’s no point in trying to better yourself because you’re constantly told that that’s who you are: nothing. I was labeled “a dirty Indian” and it shuts you down wanting to seek opportunities and education and try to help your reservation.
I think that all contributes to our suicide rates on the reservation. Also, suicide is not talked about enough. It’s always been something that’s a secret or something families become ashamed of.
When you are in a depressed or dark place, it can feel nearly impossible to pull yourself out of it. How can we encourage more of our Native people to ask for help?
When I attempted suicide, I was ashamed that I was having those thoughts that I didn’t reach out to anyone. Getting to that point didn’t happen overnight for me. It was the culmination of my whole life. So I know we need to break down barriers to access at all ages. Today, when working with clients, I’m kind with them. I let them know I’m there, and that I won’t judge them.
We also need to advertise better all the supports that currently exist.
Do you see any changes in the conversations happening in our communities on this topic? Are young people more likely to talk about mental health or is it still a taboo topic?
I believe things are changing. Young people know that talking to someone is okay and that you will heal from it. Now that it’s being talked about more, and talked about in school, we don’t see suicides like it used to be. Now there’s more resources, outreach, support groups out there. And back at home our suicide rate is dropping.
We need more people to share their stories because we need more unity. Building that unity is the start of all healing.
Bringing the conversation back to you. Thankfully, your attempt did not succeed, and instead you found a way to seek help through recovery programs and moving closer to cultural activities like drumming. Is that why you chose a career serving others with mental health and addiction issues?
I learned that a lot of my struggles were rooted in my childhood and they built up because I never talked about it. I learned that once I could see that, I could start healing and building.
I want everyone to know that the more you talk about these things—however painful—it is the only way to heal your heart.
I want people to know they’re not alone and it will be okay. Taking steps to heal will work.
I want them to know that it doesn’t have to be this way. There is another good day ahead.
Caroline Brisbois, Umatilla, lives in Vancouver, Washington, and works at the Native American Rehabilitation Association in Portland. NAYA thanks her for courageously sharing her story with the hopes it will help someone who needs it.