Partnership between Western, Gun Lake Tribe promotes suicide prevention

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A partnership between Western Michigan University and Gun Lake Tribe is breaking down stigmas and increasing training and awareness about suicide among Native American youth.

"Suicide prevention is everybody's business," says Jill Granger, behavioral health counselor for Gun Lake Tribe and project director for the We Walk Together grant, a three-year initiative funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The grant focuses on youth and young adult suicide prevention and early intervention in Native American populations in Allegan, Barry, Kalamazoo, Kent and Ottawa counties. It involves community outreach and planning; youth and young adult mental health screening and interventions; and staff training and development.

A group photo outside.

Gun Lake Tribe at the Allegan County Suicide Prevention Walk in September 2019.

"This grant is trying to build capacity, reduce stigma and have community conversations about how to address suicide prevention," says Dr. Dee Sherwood, associate professor of social work and primary investigator on the grant. "We are focused on youth and young adults and having conversations about why suicide is disproportionate in our communities."

One factor Sherwood talks about with people in Native American communities is intergenerational trauma.

"It's a cumulative emotional and psychological wounding that results from individual and collective trauma experiences. It manifests across families and generations, but also within one lifetime," she says. "It can affect your relationships, your sense of self, your emotions, your coping behaviors."

Part of that intergenerational trauma for Native American communities is related to boarding schools—residential institutions set up across the United States in the mid-1800s to assimilate Indigenous youth and strip them of their culture—which were in place until the 1980s. Many children were forcefully separated from their families and subjected to physical, sexual and mental abuse.

"As we think about mental health, and suicide specifically, within Indian country, what we're doing is making a connection between that boarding school policy, the mantra of 'Kill the Indian, save the man within,' and the specific types of racism against Native people, violence, erasure from public discourse and data, and this notion that Native Americans are people of the past," says Sherwood.

"All of the coping that comes with those sort of traumatic separations and disconnections from language, culture and family—alcohol abuse, suicide, depression, violence, the physical discipline and so forth that was happening in the boarding schools—is perpetuated down through generations."

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Supported by the grant, Sherwood and Granger have set up mental health screenings and interventions for Native youth, organized training for staff and community members and led community events to raise awareness of suicide and the warning signs.

"There's definitely a stigma to suicide, and I think when it's a small community it adds a barrier," says Granger, who earned her master's in social work from Western and is also a citizen of the Little Traverse Band of Odawa Indians. "We focus on the message that there is hope, healing is possible and help is available. You didn't choose the things that happened to you or your family. No matter what has happened, your life matters and is worth fighting for."

The entire Gun Lake Tribe Public Safety Department has also undergone QPR Gatekeeper Training specific to law enformcement, which teaches participants the warning signs of suicide crisis and how to respond—QPR stands for question, persuade and refer.

"We have also partnered with with the Tribal Training and Technical Assistance (TTA) Center, and they provide QPR training in a culturally meaningful and relevant way," Granger says. "QPR training with Tribal TTA was offered to Gun Lake Tribe citizens, citizen households, staff, staff households and any external community members who were interested. We had a couple of WMU School of Social Work students attend, which was great."

The grant is in its final year of funding, but Sherwood and Granger are looking at ways to expand the program's reach and impact across Native communities in southwest Michigan.

"I'm really proud of the collaboration and the good work that is happening between Gun Lake Tribe and Western Michigan University," Sherwood says. "I think we've created some great ways to work together effectively, and we're hopeful we'll continue to have opportunities to work with tribes in the region."

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