By EMILY JOHNS, Associated Press Writer
Fri Aug 19, 8:27 AM ET
MINNEAPOLIS - Monica Yellow Bird was 17 when her cousin hanged himself. The boy, also 17, was ambitious and had plans for the future but drank alcohol, Yellow Bird said. One day, her family returned to her grandmother's home where they found him hanging by a sheet.
"As Native people, we keep everything inside," said Yellow Bird, now 23. "We think it makes us stronger. But people need to talk about youth suicide in our community."
Many American Indian community leaders agree. On Wednesday, Yellow Bird joined American Indian teens and community leaders to announce the Native Youth Crisis Hotline.
According to Pat Shepard, a Minneapolis social worker and member of Wisconsin's Lac du Flambeau tribe who proposed the hot line, American Indians age 15 to 24 are three times more likely to commit suicide than any other racial or ethnic group.
Officials say isolation, alcohol, drugs, violence and family problems are among the problems that contribute to high suicide rates among American Indian youth.
Shepard, whose own brother committed suicide, said she was researching American Indian youth suicide rates for a presentation when the shootings at Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota happened. In March, 16-year-old Jeff Weise killed nine people — including seven at Red Lake High School — before turning the gun on himself.
The shootings and memories of her brother haunted Shepard, and the statistics seemed to keep piling up, she said.
Organizing the hot line "was a very intense experience for me," she said. "I knew something had to be done."
Almost $40,000 has been spent developing the hot line, which is being administered by Women of Nations, a group that supports battered women and their families and already runs its own hot line.
More than 30 Minnesota agencies and community groups have supported the hot line, which will cost an estimated $280,000 a year.
The 24-hour hot line is expecting to receive most of its calls from 12- and 13-year-olds, but it plans to serve people up to 18, said Ann Gaasch, a suicide prevention coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Health.
Organizers are starting to distribute business cards with the hot line phone number all over the state. Officials point out that word of mouth is a strong advertiser in the American Indian community and the hot line's success will depend on that.
Cards will also be handed out during the Honor the Youth Spiritual Run, which began at midnight Wednesday and winds almost 300 miles through the state, ending at the Red Lake Reservation. Participants will carry a staff adorned with eagle feathers through American Indian communities. Many prominent community members will participate, including Floyd Jourdain Jr., the Red Lake tribal chairman.
"We're losing children very quick, very fast," said Shepard. "If those kids had a number to call, maybe that could prevent it."