L-R: Youth Jermaine Brockie, Kataya Killeagle and Emjai Stiffarm from Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana, speak at Healing Our Spirit Worldwide.
Presenters from the state of Montana were in Vancouver at Healing Our Spirit Worldwide (HOSW) to speak about the challenge of reducing youth suicides on reservations in the United States.
Researchers Kathleen Adams, Jillene Joseph, Michelle Kahn-John, and Teresa Brockie were joined by youth Jermaine Brockie, Emjai Stiffarm and Kataya Killeagle from Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana. In 2022, Fort Belknap Nakoda and Aaniiih Tribes took part in a collaborative mixed method study with the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.
For over 40 years suicide has been the second-leading cause of death for youth living on reservations in the United States. In Montana, suicide rates among Indigenous youth are the highest in the United States.
The study explored what factors could build resiliency and emotional intelligence among Indigenous youth living on reserve. Youth were asked what could help them in building that resiliency and reducing the risk of suicide.
The study found that positive childhood experiences, strong tribal identity, and good social networks decrease risky behaviours and suicidal ideation. It also found that benevolent childhood experiences—such as having a supportive or positive teacher or neighbour—reduced the risks that can lead to suicide.
Jermaine, Emjai and Kataya each shared with the audience what makes them feel safe and mentally well. These youth revealed that being in a safe environment, getting support when needed and not being judged were most important. They also listed their most positive experiences as talking to Elders, playing language games in their native Lakota, and learning about their own history.
The study also asked youth to look 100 years ahead to ask what they wanted the future to look like. Answers ranged from wanting mental health clinics on reservations to more culturally safe approaches for discussing mental health with youth. Self-determination was also a big motivator.
“I want a reservation where each Native American has their own chance for financial success," said Jermaine.
Fort Belknap Nakoda and Aaniiih Tribes in partnership with Johns Hopkins School of Nursing has implemented the Young Medicine Movement (YMM), providing Aaniiih and Nakoda high school students a pathway to nursing, public health and STEM careers. The seven-week curriculum prepares students to develop skills in health care research, increases student understanding of chemistry, biology, anatomy and neuroscience, while integrating Native American values, traditions and Indigenous knowledge.
The presenters said that an event like HOSW is an opportunity to share concepts that are working with other Indigenous communities in the hopes that others might try it. They said that the youth in YMM are looking forward to opportunities in medicine while bringing traditional values and beliefs that will strengthen cultural safety and build resiliency.
“They're not becoming cycle breakers," said Kathleen Adams. “They are cycle breakers."