For Hays Lodge Pole Schools Principal Reyna Monteau, the need for better resources and rapid response is dire for her students. Two of her students have died by suicide in the past two months, and more than a dozen have attempted suicide since then.
Keeping doors open and hosting summer activities has been a priority for Monteau, because she says it could be the difference between life and death for her students.
After a series of deaths by suicide, and even more attempts, the community of Fort Belknap is looking for solutions to what it calls a crisis. Volunteers, teachers and community members are trying to figure out creative solutions to a problem exacerbated by a lack of resources.
In mid-July, the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council declared a state of emergency after a rash of attempted suicides and at least two completed suicides. The majority of attempts were made by youth in the past three months, according to Connie Filesteel, who works on special projects with the council.
Native teens and young adults are especially vulnerable to dying by suicide, much more so than non-Natives.
Native youth, ages 11 to 24, are five times more likely to die by suicide than their non-Native counterparts, according to data from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services. For Native youth, 42 of every 100,000 deaths is by suicide.
Isolation, historical trauma and drug abuse are three key causes that the Indian Community Council has identified as contributing factors to the increase of suicide, according to the emergency declaration from the council.
Feelings of isolation, and even boredom, were mentioned by Fort Belknap youth during a series of community meetings held mid-July. The kids want more things to do, and with fewer resources than larger metropolitan areas, the rural community needs to turn to themselves to help prevent further death.
The council has been expanding open hours for community centers for youth who want to talk, and the community has organized other activities like horse therapy, Filesteel said.
To mitigate isolation and boredom Monteau and her teachers have been volunteering to make sure the students aren’t left without anything to do, especially during the summer break when kids live miles away from each other. Classes start in mid-August.
For the summer vacation the school gym has been open every day from 5 p.m. until students leave, on Tuesdays there is a youth group and cooking class. On Wednesdays Monteau has been teaching about medicinal plants and volunteers have helped students make regalia. Talking and praying circles have also happened with local spiritual leaders.
Nurturing and keeping students busy is key, Monteau said.
“Those things are self-esteem boosters,” she said. “It’s empowering to them, and they get to be what they are at their core and blood.”
There are about 7,000 enrolled Fort Belknap tribal members, with about 5,800 living on or near the Fort Belknap Reservation, according to the Fort Belknap Indian Health Services.
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While not many resources are available to those needing intervention, even those resources are overburdened and understaffed, Filesteel said.
Indian Health Services currently employs one psychiatrist, one psychologist, and one social worker on staff for the entire reservation, Filesteel said.
The other program, Empower Inner Strength, is the primary responding agency to suicide attempts and completions, Filesteel said. The department is headquartered on the northern side of the reservation near Harlem. It has a staff of five and covers the entire reservation.
“They are responding to all these communities and a lot of the attempts and completions have been on the southern end of the reservation. That’s a 40-mile distance from the Agency to the southern end of reservation. Even a little further, Lodge Pole is about 50 miles,” Filesteel said.
Timely responses and sufficient staffing has been difficult for the isolated reservation. Even with an influx of recent community volunteers, the reservation is struggling to respond and prevent attempts.
Further, the school district does not have a therapist or counselor on staff, Monteau said, aside from a career counselor. It relies on IHS or the Empowering Inner Strength, too. For the next school year, she’s working to get an office at the school for EIS folks, she said.
“After the first suicide they’ve been at our school assisting us in taking care of what we need to take care of in a safe way,” she said.
Monteau also organized a meeting with local professionals and teachers to address the need for a suicide crisis team in the school district for the start of the 2019-2020 school year.
“A suicide crisis team will be established, with teachers, administration, students, elders and tribal staff members that are dedicated to helping plan and implement for our Hays Lodge Pole students,” she said.
That includes identifying at-risk students through a series of interview questions, organizing and bringing together resources, and making sure students, parents and guardians are up-to-date on resources available.
“Make a school community a nurturing environment and students will be able to predict what will happen next,” she said. “We want to have positive, proactive intervention.”
Keeping kids in school, avoiding suspension, and building confidence both in and out of the classroom helps youths feel loved, welcomed and seen, she said.
Monteau is also planning extra training for teachers so they are well-versed in dealing with traumatized students, students dealing with mental illness, and at-risk students. She’s also implanting a suicide crisis protocol for emergencies.
“My goal for the year is to have a really great climate. We want to work on relationships and that good climate of our schools for our students so they can learn,” she said.