TOWAOC, Colo. (AP) — The night she lost her teenage cousin to suicide, a boy she considered her brother, Cheyenne Hayes thought her mind was going crazy.
As the Ute Mountain Ute tribal community mourned the deaths of two middle school boys — Andrew William Cuch Jr., 14, and Jeit Redrock Height, 15 — on the same January night, Hayes and her friends grieved.
She could hear her friends' pain as they spoke about their own lives. Hayes found her own mind traveling down a similarly dark road.
“I told myself I couldn't go down the same path my brother went down,'' Hayes said. “Because that wouldn't solve anything.''
But as the 17-year-old counseled her struggling friends, she scoffed at the idea of seeing a therapist. Most of her friends felt the same way. And the few who did seek help said the professional didn't understand what they were going through.
“I already know what to do on my own,'' Hayes said.
The deaths of two middle school boys have forced the Ute Mountain Ute tribe to confront long-held stigmas surrounding suicide and mental health, which plague American Indians at a higher rate than any other population in the United States.
This fall, a new behavioral health building five years in the making will open on the reservation. Tribal leaders have touted its potential to bring much-needed help to the Ute people: trained clinicians on site, specialists to help clients navigate the world of behavioral health and a culturally relevant program designed for a population saddled with hundreds of years of historical trauma, high rates of substance abuse and domestic violence.
The new resources come as communities across the state confront a troubling rise in youth suicides.
But as the Ute Mountain Ute tribe prepares to cut the ribbon on its new facility, it must convince members young and old to open up about an immensely painful topic that hits everyone close to home.
“Subject that nobody wants to talk about''
Colorado leaders, community residents and teenagers have sounded the alarm over the recent surge in youth suicides, which have risen to become the leading cause of death for individuals between 10 and 24. Between 2015 and 2017, there were 533 suicides by teens and children, up from 340 such deaths between 2003 and 2005, according to a report by the Colorado Attorney General's Office.
While suicide affects all populations, American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest rates of any racial/ethnic group in the United States, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the rates of suicide in Native populations have been increasing since 2003.
Montezuma County, where the Ute Mountain Ute reservation lies, has the fourth-highest suicide rate in Colorado at 42 deaths per 100,000 people _ more than double the statewide average.
And on an Indian reservation of fewer than 2,200 people, tragedy reaches everybody.
From teens up through elders, the entire tribe had some connection or relation to the two middle schoolers who died by suicide on that January night.
The Ute Mountain reservation has seen suicide before. Since 2004, there were at least 13 suicides among American Indians in Montezuma County, according to state data. Suicide among Native American populations, however, is notoriously underreported, health officials say.
But the most recent deaths shocked the community, given the age of the boys.
“It's really opened a lot of people's eyes,'' said tribal councilwoman DeAnne House.
The sheer number of tragedies have made it hard for people to move on.
“Grief has cycles,'' House said. “And we don't get to see the full cycle because people lose someone the next week and it just keeps going. We don't ever get that chance to take a breath and relax and accept what's happening with our people.''
Prisllena Nightstarr, the tribe's treasurer, has been through the grieving cycle with her own daughter, who killed herself at age 24.
Nightstarr now talks to schools, adults and other groups about suicide, about opening up, about forgiveness and acceptance.
“This is a subject that nobody wants to talk about because it's embarrassing, it's belittling,'' Nightstarr said. “But you know what the bottom line is? It's a reality of what our people are going through.''
She has encouraged people to talk, to share their emotions.
“When you share your experience, it heals and mends the soul,'' Nightstarr said.
Despite prodding from those such as Nightstarr, the stigma surrounding mental health discourages many American Indians from seeking help.
“It's still seen as shameful and deficient of moral character to be depressed,'' said Dr. Spero Manson, director for the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health at the University of Colorado.
There used to be similar stigmas in Indian communities surrounding alcohol abuse, Manson said, but through years of discussions and prominent role models, those stigmas have largely abated.
“We have much less of that with depression, anxiety and suicide,'' Manson said.
Kamea Clark, 18, has seen friends go to therapy, only for their families to find out and share a big laugh.
“Everyone knows where to go for help,'' Clark said, “but they're too scared and intimidated by family members because on reservation everyone's tough.''
Teenagers going through a hard time often don't want to talk to their parents, she said, because they might just tell them to toughen up. Instead, if teens choose to open up, it's with each other.
“I feel like my friends are more accepting,'' Clark said. “They understand mental health is a big problem all over the world, but parents think it's more of a phase.''
“Oh, she's just a teenager,' " Clark said, quoting a phrase she's heard from parents. “‘She's upset; she'll get over it.' "
The tribe has worked to fight this sentiment and raise awareness of mental health issues. The Ute Mountain Utes were one of four tribes nationwide to be included in the Tiwahe program, an Obama-era initiative that provides additional resources to Indian communities for health, housing, culture and public safety.
One of the Tiwahe projects included a series of short films shot and produced by teenagers, including Clark and Hayes.
In the 2015 short film “Escape,'' Clark plays a 14-year-old girl named Rachel who's constantly bullied by her sister and other classmates. The film follows Rachel and her best friend, Adam, 17, who has been shunned by his alcoholic stepfather after coming out of the closet. Feeling rejected by their peers and family, Rachel and Adam make a suicide pact, but decide in the end to live.
“Once we got to the point where we were going to do it, it just didn't seem like a good solution,'' Rachel tells the camera.
At the end of the film, a transformed Rachel chastises Adam's father for being drunk before confronting the group of girls who had previously tortured her, a smile crossing her face as the screen fades to black.
The themes depicted in the film — alcoholism, sexuality, suicide and bullying — are ones that Clark sees every day on the reservation.
“I wanted to send the message that it's OK to ask for help,'' Clark said about the film. “It's OK to talk to people. If you're having mental issues or not feeling OK, you can make a change and get the help you need.''
DeAnne House said she's seen an awakening from young people when it comes to the recent suicides.
“There are things happening with our youth that they have always kept covered,'' she said. “They're finally speaking and saying, ‘This is what's wrong. This is where our disparities are, this is how we feel, and these are our needs.' "
“Story of a transformed heart''
When House won a seat on the tribal council, she made it her mission to get behavioral health services to the reservation.
After all, House has seen the need in her own family: She lost all but one of her uncles to substance abuse issues.
Her niece has struggled with addiction.
As a trained addictions counselor, House has worked with countless individuals in need of help. She knew the tribe needed more resources.
After five years of discussions, planning sessions and grant-writing, House learned they would receive funding for the new behavioral health center.
“It was a very emotional day,'' House said, looking out the window at the excavated lot which will soon house the new facility. “We will finally have something that we can actually see and feel out there.''
The behavioral health center, which is scheduled to open in October, will be called Moguan — “my heart'' in the Ute dialect.
“The building is the story of a transformed heart,'' said Todd Giesen, the health center's project director. “When a young person comes in, they've got a broken heart. But when they walk out, they've got a transformed heart.''
Moguan will include two new clinicians, two staff members to help people navigate the behavioral health system, and one nurse, Giesen said. One clinician, who specializes in crisis intervention and suicide prevention, has already provided nearly 50 hours of clinical services, he said.
“It's amazing to see how people have responded to her,'' Giesen said.
Moguan will be centered around trauma-informed care that takes into account the history of Native people, he said. It aims to be restorative and holistic, with particular focus on the behavioral health needs of those under 24.
As Giesen worked to develop concepts and plans for the new facility, he struggled with the same problem encountered by reservations across the country: finding American Indian mental health clinicians.
It is the most underrepresented minority group in psychology, Greywolf said.
There are about 400 doctorally trained American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian psychologists in the United States, said Dr. Joseph Gone, a Harvard professor who focuses on psychology in indigenous communities.
But the majority of the highly skilled practitioners — more than 75%, Gone estimated — do not work on reservations or with Native populations.
Experts say there's a laundry list of reasons why it's hard to recruit and retain trained professionals to work on reservations: lower pay; steep learning curves, especially for non-Native providers; fewer resources and a lack of colleagues doing similar work, leading to high burnout rates.
“It's hard to get people,'' Giesen admitted. “The pond is definitely smaller.''
As the tribal council looks forward to the new facility and Giesen assembles his staff, some members of the tribe remain skeptical.
“They're wasting their money,'' said Hayes, the 17-year-old. “None of these kids are gonna go. I wouldn't.''
Teens on the reservation don't want to talk to express their feelings to a random person, she said.
Even though the stigma of mental health remains prevalent, Clark sees the new center as a positive.
“I think it'll be a great thing,'' she said. “I think people will actually go down and get the help they need.''
FARMINGTON, N.M. (AP) — Investigators are asking for help from the public in connection with a string of suspicious fires on the Navajo Nation.
The Farmington Daily Times reports the Bureau of Indian Affairs Wildland Fire Management Navajo Region is offering a reward to anyone with information about fires that have occurred since July at Navajo Agricultural Products Industry.
An alert was posted on Sept. 4 on the agency's Facebook page, stating that a series of fires have occurred at Navajo Agricultural Products Industry in areas south and east of Ojo Amarillo.
Authorities say there have been at least four fires since July 26.
Johnson Benallie, regional assistant fire management officer for the Navajo Region of the BIA Fire and Aviation Management, says the investigation remains open.
Information from: The Daily Times, http://www.daily-times.com