New Curriculum Seeks To Reduce Suicide Risk in American Indian Teenagers

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A group of American Indian teenagers walk through the woods near their boarding school in Tahlequah, Okla. Some of them, blindfolded, rely on their classmates to make a path for them through the trees.

"They learn about trust this way,'' explains Sheila Buzzard, a teacher at Sequoyah High School there.

Trust is critical for these students, who are learning, in a sense, how to save their own lives.

They are taking part in an experiment, testing an unusual suicide-prevention program geared specifically to Native American teenagers. Designed by a University of Wisconsin professor, the curriculum is based on studies of the Zuni and Cherokee cultures and traditions. Preliminary findings from the pilot-testing suggest that it is effective in dealing with what has become an epidemic of suicide among Indian youths.

While the suicide rate for Americans as a whole increases gradually with age, among Indians it skyrockets at age 15 and peaks in the early 20's, according to recent studies. Over 30 percent of Zuni teenagers said they had tried to kill themselves at one time, according to researchers. Over all, the suicide rate among Indians between ages 13 and 19 is quadruple the national average.

Most Indian schools and teenagers' centers already present information about suicide in health classes and help students identify school resources. But this curriculum, the authors argue, goes further in that it tries to reduce the risk factors associated with suicide in a culturally sensitive context.

Using nature activities, videotaped role-playing, and peer-counseling techniques, the curriculum explores anger and grieving, stress management, communication skills, and coping with oppression. It is scheduled to be published by Stanford University next fall.

'Like a Counseling Class'

Theresa LaFromboise, an associate professor in the school of education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who spearheaded the curriculum development along with a team of researchers from Stanford, her alma mater, says the curriculum draws on Native American traditions to help students learn to cope with Native Americans' problems. Suicide, she says, occurs when people cannot cope with their difficulties.

"The program shows young people how they can handle their emotions and be proud of their heritage as American Indians,'' Ms. LaFromboise says.

"If students can learn to deal with their feelings, to improve their self-esteem and to set goals for themselves,'' she says, "they're less likely to commit suicide.''

By contrast, says Dr. Sally Davis, a pediatrician at the University of New Mexico, who had developed suicide-prevention models for Indian youths at the Windriver reservation, most other suicide-prevention curricula have failed because they were imposed on Indians by educators from outside.

"It is still happening that the old neo-colonial models are being used,'' Ms. Davis says.

One typical lesson in the new curriculum, for example, focuses on the Indian way of dealing with anger. The unit acknowledges that there is much for Indiansto be angry about: broken treaties, wars, forced relocations, and the hardships of reservation life. But instead of lashing out at such injustices, it says, students should be urged to think about self-control, a highly regarded Indian trait, as a way to handle their anger.

Other lessons focus on alcoholism, a chronic problem among American Indians. Students explore ways to resist pressures they may feel adults put on them to drink. Teachers play videos on fetal alcohol syndrome and stress management.

"Many of the kids are hapless, sort of adrift, and they see alcohol as a way out,'' says Dr. Davis.

In addition to learning to cope with their own feelings, the students learn how to identify self-destructive behaviors as warning signs in their friends. They read materials about the "Indian ways to cope with grief and loss,'' such as writing a letter to a friend who has died. They compose poems, sing, and meditate.

"It's like a counseling class,'' Ms. Buzzard says.

Cultural Factors

The curriculum also addresses cultural factors that may contribute to self-destructive behavior.

A landmark study, published in 1986, found that such factors are critical in understanding suicide among American Indians. It found that Indians' suicide rates were related to their contact with non-Indian populations.

"With culture change,'' the study's authors write, "some Native American groups experienced loss of cultural traits, which led to conflicts in values, stress, and an increase in social pathologies.''

To deal with such issues, Ms. La Fromboise included in the curriculum a section about "cultural oppression,'' the economy, and the breakdown of traditions.

During one session on "Indian history and finding our power,'' for example, the students went to see the recent movie "Thunderheart,'' which describes the federal government's manipulation of tribal councils in order to secure uranium rights on Indian lands.

The film alleges that the tribal police conspired with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a series of murders of "subversive'' tribal leaders.

But to show that the film's villains "weren't all bad guys,'' the teachers invited a Zuni attorney and tribal policemen to discuss the movie with the students.

That lesson helped teach the students about their "sense of oppression from within the tribe and without,'' Ms. LaFromboise says.

Consulting With Healers

The program draws on more positive aspects of Indian traditions as well. Teachers try to consult the tribe's spiritual leaders, or healers, if someone has a problem.

At Zuni schools, teachers instruct students on the protocol of how to make the initial contact with a healer, what offerings to bring, and how to communicate with him.

The healer, Mr. Lewis explains, will analyze the person's problem and prescribe ways for the person to take responsibility--much as a non-indigenous physician might, but in a more personalized way.

The teachers in these reservation schools also help the students by sharing their own experiences.

"I came from a family that had a lot of alcoholism, and they have low self-esteem,'' says Ms. Buzzard, who is part Sioux and Cherokee. "A lot of things have been bad for me. I can relate to the students because they have the same background. ''

Suicide "is a touchy subject,'' she says, but adds that, in her classroom, "kids come to me and tell me if so-and-so might be thinking about it, ... because they know everything we talk about in the cx0 el10lclassroom is confidential.''

The curriculum has forced some participants to re-examine some entrenched cultural practices.

"The Zuni believe that talking about suicide is taboo,'' says Hayes Lewis, the superintendent of the Zuni schools.

Results Appear Positive

Mr. Lewis approached Ms. LaFromboise about creating a culturally specific curriculum six years ago, at a time when an average of two teenagers a year committed suicide on the reservation.

"It was a roller-coaster ride,'' Mr. Lewis says, noting that the Zuni believe in the concept of large extended families.

"If there is a death in my family, it is going to affect 500 people,'' he says.

The son of a Zuni tribal leader, Mr. Lewis believed something had to be done.

"If there is something as extreme as a child taking his own life and you can't talk about it, then it's a self-fulfilling prophesy,'' he says.

Initial results from the program suggest that it can be effective. Since the course has been in place, the program's sponsors note, there have been no adolescent suicides on the Zuni reservation.

The formal evaluation of the program has been positive as well, says Ms. LaFromboise. In videotapes of a random selection of 84 Zuni teenagers taken before and after the course, researchers note significant differences in students' willingness to accompany a "distressed person'' to the resource center, a decreased desire to agree to secrecy about a problem, and an increase in their willingness to disclose suicidal intent.

Though the curriculum is still being bound and printed, Ms. LaFromboise has already received over 50 requests from school systems and teachers interested in purchasing the materials.

She says she wants to write a culturally neutral version of the course, as well as develop a computerized data base to track at-risk students after they graduate.

Ms. LaFromboise believes that the social-skills-training approach that reinforces behaviors is the best hope for these teenagers.

"We try to make these kids believe in themselves,'' she says.

Vol. 12, Issue 22

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