Caring, understanding help combat youth suicide

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Coloradas Mangas works at his desk, reviewing files of new students enrolled in community programs in December 2014.

Adria Malcolm/New Mexico In Depth

Coloradas Mangas works at his desk, reviewing files of new students enrolled in community programs in December 2014.

Coloradas Mangas works to prevent suicide. But the word itself rarely surfaces during an interview with a reporter. Stigma can prevent open conversations. And when asked if it persists at Mescalero, where he works, the 20-year old Mangas doesn’t give a direct answer. Instead, he tells a story.

This time from the First Nations people in Canada. In a village where people are starving, a messenger arrives, telling the village leader he must sacrifice his daughter to end the people’s suffering. The father refuses, but the daughter overhears the conversation. She leaves the village and offers herself as a sacrifice, hoping her people will survive.

Stories of self-sacrifice are carried down through the generations and told among some Native American tribes, including the Mescalero Apache, he says. But there are important distinctions between those stories and the ways in which distressed young people take their lives.

When young people turn away from life today, he says, they’re not helping their communities. They are not sacrificing themselves for the benefit of generations — like the girl in the story.

“We stress in our stories, it wasn’t suicide. It wasn’t that she was having a hard time, that she didn’t want to deal with what was going on in the world,” Mangas says. “It was self-sacrifice. For her people to go forward into the future, she had to do that for her people.”

Today, choosing life can often be a child’s brave act.

Despite his work, however, Mangas doesn’t blame people who take their own lives.

“People can only take so much in their lives until they don’t care about anything, anyone, not even themselves,” he says. “They’re being bullied, they don’t have support, or you’re harassed constantly because of your race, your gender, because your family is poor, because you’re mentally or physically disabled, or even now, some people, because of their sexual orientation.”

Coloradas Mangas talks with a coworker at the community health center office in Mescalero. Signs outlining youth issues and solutions adorn the walls.

Adria Malcolm / New Mexico In Depth

Coloradas Mangas talks with a coworker at the community health center office in Mescalero. Signs outlining youth issues and solutions adorn the walls.

People can only take so much, he says. Again.

“That’s kind of what’s happening with Indian people: We were bullied, picked on. People wanted our land. People didn’t like us because we were different, because we were close to our Creator and had our own way of life,” he says.

“They made us Christian, Catholic. They made us American, made us a part of western civilization. We no longer dress in our traditional manner. We do our ceremonies, but not in everyday life. We’re no longer really living in our traditional housing. We do away with our tipis until it’s ceremony time.”

The loss of prayer and language seems to worry Mangas most.

Words spoken in English are less “solid,” he says after searching for the right word to explain what he means. And he fears that when Apache people — especially young people — do pray, they’re reciting the words in English.

The Apache peoples’ ancestors were here before English was spoken. “How are they to understand us when we pray in English?” he says. He asks other young people who they’re praying to — the Lord, the Creator, your ancestors, he says? “How do they know what your prayers are if your prayers are in English?”

Mangas’ faith, he says, helps him survive. “It’s easy for me to have something to turn to,” he says. “I can sing a song to myself and feel good. I can say a prayer and my language and feel good about myself. I know the Lord heard me. The Creator hears me.”

Mangas is a button-to-the-very-top-button kind of young man. He’d like to be a museum curator because he likes old things. He tells the old stories, talks fondly of the old days. And if he could choose a time to live, it wouldn’t be now.

“I would choose the old ways,” he says. “People understood their lives and what they were here for.”

Just as there’s often no one reason – or one event – that makes someone take his or her own life, there’s no one reason why suicide rates are so high within New Mexico’s Native American communities. But Native youth do face a unique challenge. Every day, they must navigate two worlds, Native and western, always with the knowledge that the future of their tribe’s existence depends upon them.

Living in two worlds, meeting many expectations

Just 30 minutes north of Albuquerque, the Pueblo of San Felipe feels a world away from the state’s biggest city. The Rio Grande slips along past quiet adobes and trailers. Irrigation ditches feed a few small fields. A basketball court stands empty on a hot summer day.

San Felipe is a culturally conservative community of about 2,500 people. Except for a few annual dances, visitors are not invited to visit the pueblo as they are at places such as Acoma or Taos pueblos. Here, as in many of New Mexico’s rural Native American communities, young people are trying to abide by tradition and respect the past — and survive in the western world.

“It’s a lot to deal with because being where you are most of the time, in the Pueblo, you just have a lot of these leaders and elders telling you want they expect of you: being a leader in your community, being part of the culture, participating in the culture, and being there so you can continue that resiliency that Native people have had,” says Ryan Sanchez, who grew up at the Pueblo of San Felipe. “Not losing our language, not losing our culture: Those messages are being driven into your head every day — it’s one of the most important things you learn and one of the things you begin to practice every day.”

Even when they’re proud of their culture, that responsibility  can be hard to juggle.

“Native youth want to be doctors, we want to be artists, we want to go travel the world, we want to be fashion designers,” Sanchez says, speaking last spring, when he was 19. “But at the same time, they’re expected to be these community leaders for each of their own pueblos that they come from.”

Straddling two worlds is difficult, especially when those worlds include different — and sometimes, competing — expectations. With each step forward, young people are still lugging burdens from generations past. On top of that, they bear the expectations of their communities — and are expected to succeed, or at least fit in with, mainstream culture.

And sometimes, when they’re trying to pursue western education or careers beyond the reservations, they may end up breathing the guilt and shame put on them by older relatives who want them to remain at home and pursue an old way of life instead.

For a few years after graduating from Santa Fe Indian School, Sanchez worked as a youth advocate for San Felipe’s Health Department, where he focused on suicide and substance abuse prevention. That experience taught him that grappling with self-identity and the many roles Native kids are expected to assume is tied to historical trauma. Over generations, hurt, anger and fear have accumulated and manifested into problems that, in turn, cause harm to young people.

This isn’t unique to Native Americans or just Indigenous people. A recent study found that the descendants of Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust have altered stress hormone levels and metabolism. In other words, the effects of historical trauma are found within the very cells of the descendants whose ancestors suffered from attempts at genocide.

Until people truly understand the burdens of past injustices and pains,he says, conditions in Native communities won’t improve.

The San Felipe Health Department has offered classes for young people and community members about how that accumulation of pain — conquest, the loss of lands and resources, boarding schools, and reorganization — manifests itself.

And while young people will take home what they’ve learned and talk with family members about historical trauma, it’s still a taboo topic that many elders and leaders shy away from discussing.  That needs to change, says Sanchez.

“Unless you talk about it,” he says, “mental ills and these constraints in our community aren’t going to get better.”

Those conversations can be difficult — whether they’re about generational trauma or an individual’s struggle with mental illness or suicidal ideation. But suicide prevention experts say that even one trusted adult in a child’s life can make a world of difference. That’s another reason why schools play such a critical role in prevention.

In Thoreau, for instance, middle-school teachers are undergoing prevention training so they can spot red flags among students. There are plans for peer-to-peer trainings to equip the kids to find help for friends and classmates who may be quietly floundering.

After the 2009 teen suicides shook Ruidoso High School, which is about one-third Native, administrators and teachers were flooded with help. State and federal programs offered funding. Counselors and trainers stepped up and sent resources. Something similar happened at Mescalero Apache School, which is on the nearby reservation.

Today, the public school district still funds suicide prevention programs at Ruidoso High School. But at Mescalero Apache School the suicide prevention team no longer exists. At the beginning of each school year, Carlos Beltran, who also serves as the school’s guidance counselor, talks with teachers about the protocol for handling a student who is talking about self-harm. Or, a student who’s just having a hard time.

“Sometimes, school is the only place they have to vent about what’s going on at home,” he says of students not just at his school, but anywhere. “Their behavior — whether they’re being rude, acting out, crying or even coming right out and asking for help — teachers know something is going on. It may not be an anxiety to us, but it is to them. And so they are thinking ‘Nobody’s paying attention to me, I’m just in the way, maybe I’ll just get rid of myself.’ ”

Beltran says kids today are more anxious and experience more intense pressures, whether they are related to fashion and technology or substance abuse and mental illness, than when he began working at the school 11 years ago. He doesn’t think that’s unique to Mescalero Apache School or to Native kids in particular.

“Nowadays kids are having such a heavy level of depression, and that’s leading to unwanted anxieties,” says Beltran. “At this point of age they are very vulnerable. We carry so much that our children take that load, whether we want them to or not. It’s not happening because of poverty or because someone is brown or blue. It happens to everyone.”

‘A place where kids don’t have to escape’

After hearing about a string of youth suicides in the Taos area within the span of a month in 2011, Lyla June Johnston started what became the Regeneración Festival – four days of music, poetry, prayer and dances.

With the festival, she says they wanted to make Taos seem like an attractive place for young people to stay. “It might take us years, but soon Taos will be a place where kids don’t have to escape, either by going to college or jumping off the bridge, you know?” says Johnston, who is of Navajo descent but grew up in Taos.

With glasses and a sly smile, Johnston speaks with a poet’s cadence. Somehow, she manages — sometimes in the same sentence — to be both strident and gentle. Shaming or blaming people who think about suicide, or die by suicide, won’t make the world any better for other young people, she says.

“If you don’t like it here, why would you stay here? I really don’t see anything wrong with leaving if you want to leave, to be honest,” says Johnston. “My strategy is to make a world where people want to live. If people want to leave, it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of society and the whole.”

Young people, she says, need reasons to live. “How do you make a young person want their life?” she asks. “Well, you change their environment and give them at least a taste of what it means to be a part of a loving community.”

Now in her mid-20s and a graduate of Stanford University, Johnston still remembers what it’s like to be lost in darkness. It’s easy to talk about personal responsibility, but many kids are exposed to the world of substance abuse at an early age.

When she was 11, she says someone who should have been a trusted adult in her life introduced her to drugs and alcohol. Then she ticks back three generations, naming the family members she knows who struggled with alcoholism.

In 2013, she organized another Regeneración Festival, this time in the Plaza de Española. On a warm, hazy Sunday in early September, just a handful of people gathered in the gazebo for a prayer circle. As they prayed for the next generation — smoking from a pipe while Johnston’s mother sang — a curious couple asked about the food set up outside the gazebo.

Despite the small turnout, it’s important to bring people together — especially in places like Taos and Española, where the ripples of conquest that swept over Native people still rock relationships, says Johnston. She waves toward Paseo de Oñate, a main road in Española that’s named for Juan de Oñate, the Mexican-born soldier contracted by the King of Spain to settle New Mexico in the late 16th century.

When passing through the Pueblo of Acoma en route to the Pueblo of Zuni, one of Oñate’s soldiers was accused of theft and rape. A battle broke out. After three days of fighting, hundreds of Puebloans had died and hundreds of survivors were brought to trial. Oñate sentenced men and women to decades of servitude.

Almost 100 young women were sent to Mexico. Soldiers hacked off the left feet of men over the age of 25.

The violence didn’t end there. After centuries of Spanish and Mexican conquest of the area’s Native Americans, the United States government arrived. Bloodshed continued.

Most of us still don’t talk about that violence.

Until recently, for instance, the park in Taos where they held their suicide prevention festival was named after Kit Carson, who rounded up thousands of Navajos and marched them to a prison camp in eastern New Mexico. “That’s my ancestry as a Navajo woman,” Johnston says.

But, she says, history does not define who she is today. And she says Native people need to acknowledge that living life in response to that violence isn’t an antidote to historical trauma.

Today, social lines in schools still get drawn along skin colors. Fights break out between Native, white, Hispanic and Mexican kids. She laughs, “It’s like, so outdated. Wow. We’re still doing this 500 years later?”

Being willing to help

Beltran and Mangas – like many others working on suicide prevention in Indian Country – emphasize that it’s not only Native kids who are suffering. Everybody suffers from the same things when they are thinking about suicide, says Mangas: They feel like no one is there for them, they have no one to turn to, and no one to talk with when they need compassion. They are isolated. Scared, alone, not knowing who will listen to them.

That’s why parents have such an important role to play. Helping someone survive can be as simple, he says, as asking kids about their day when they come home from school.

Many parents are busy, Mangas acknowledges. They work long hours. Some arrive home after their kids are in bed. Maybe they don’t want to wake their kids, he says, but he wishes they would take those few extra steps into the bedroom.

“Instead of the child laying down already, waiting for parent to come in and talk to them, and the parent goes straight to bed,” Mangas says. “The child is laying there thinking, ‘Was it something I did? Was it something I said?’”

It might seem simplistic, but for him, the key to suicide prevention — and to a better world, in general — is people being nice to one another.

People between Mescalero and the nearby mountain town of Ruidoso know him. It’s a small community — and he has been a “vocal activist,” as one man says. Another grins broadly when asked if he knows Mangas: “He’s not like the other young people around here. He speaks his mind about things.”

But that doesn’t mean his life is easy. Like others, he has lost people. Unlike many of them, however, he has gone public, listing for U.S. senators during a 2010 congressional hearing the names of those he has lost.

Coloradas Mangas, who works in suicide prevention, stands silent atop a peak in the Sacramento Mountains overlooking the Mescalero Apache Reservation with tears streaming from his eyes. Dec. 4, 2014, the day this photo was taken, was the first time he saw this view of his community.

Adria Malcolm / New Mexico In Depth

Coloradas Mangas, who works in suicide prevention, stands silent atop a peak in the Sacramento Mountains overlooking the Mescalero Apache Reservation with tears streaming from his eyes. Dec. 4, 2014, the day this photo was taken, was the first time he saw this view of his community.

Named after Mangas Coloradas, a 19th century tribal chief among the Chiricahua Apache, he draws on prayer and tradition and talks about the influence of his mom and grandmother in his life. Still, Mangas seems tired with his work. And even while he’s working to keep other young people alive, he seems less hopeful about his own future. He talks of the stories elders tell, of the coming end — something that doesn’t seem unlikely to many young people assaulted constantly with news of wars and conflict, climate change, and economic uncertainty.

And perhaps this is more true in general among Native kids than, for example Anglo kids, given their history of trauma. Native people have suffered through something like apocalypse before — and it’s hard not to wonder if Mangas feels that in his heart.

Mangas says he wants a career in his future. But he also doesn’t want to be disappointed.

“Inside myself, I wouldn’t want to leave the reservation and have some catastrophic event happen. I wouldn’t want to be far away from my family,” he says. “If I had to leave everything behind, I could survive here.”

Despite his disappointment in the state of today’s world and his nostalgia for the past, despite his uncertainty about his own future, Mangas does think his work at Systems of Care matters. “Since our program started, we haven’t had a youth suicide here in Mescalero, knock on wood,” he says.

Since the cluster of deaths in 2009, a state database shows only one youth death by suicide in Otero County, where the Mescalero reservation sits, that of a boy in his late teens in 2011. Mangas says the drop in deaths might be due to the prevention work. But he can’t say that’s true with any real certainty. And he doesn’t want any of the people working so hard to feel bad if young people start dying again, if the deaths really just come in cycles no one understands.

In Native American communities across the state, funding for behavioral health care and prevention efforts is always an issue. So is organizing programs that resonate with tribal communities.

But when asked about his perfect world — what he’d do if they had all the resources they needed — Mangas doesn’t hesitate. It wouldn’t be money. Instead, he would want people to care, and to help.

“It would be support from everybody. It would be all groups of people from all different walks of life, from all across the country, from people living in big cities, people living on farms, people living in little towns,” he says. “If all those people would say, ‘Our children are taking their lives and we need to help them and let them know we’re here for them.’”

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