World Suicide Prevention Day: How Raising Awareness Helps One Tribal Member Heal

Dirk Whitebreast speaks passionately about his sister's suicide

Dirk Whitebreast speaks passionately about his sister’s suicide

LAWRENCE, KANSAS—Affected by the suicide of his sister,  Dirk Whitebreast of the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa (Meskwaki Nation) found healing not just through exercise but spreading his message to raise awareness of suicide prevention.

Realizing he had to transform his life to become a role model, Whitebreast started on his sobriety. Later he served on his tribal council and was the youngest person to serve as secretary to the Sac and Fox Nation.  With his accomplishments growing, Whitebreast sought to do more about the issue of suicide among young people.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) among American Indians/Alaska Natives aged 15- to 34-years, suicide is the second leading cause of death. The suicide rate among American Indian/Alaska Native adolescents and young adults ages 15 to 34 (31 per 100,000) is 2.5 times higher than the national average for that age group (12.2 per 100,000). Forty percent of all American Indian and Alaskan Natives suicides impact this young group.

In 2011 Whitebreast embarked on a 262-mile journey that would see him run 10 marathons in 30 days.  Running to help heal from the loss of his sister Darcy Jo Keahna as well as raising awareness about the loss of many young American Indians to suicide, Whitebreast has continued to speak to many about issue.  Here is the interview with Dirk in his own words about his work and words for others to help cope with suicide.

Suicide affects many people, how did this drive you to be such a vocal advocate for more awareness?

Quite simply, I did not want anyone to go through what my family and I went through when my sister left. Guilt, personal blame, regret. Watching my grandma ask herself, “What did I do wrong?”

That was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to go through. My grandma raised us grandchildren and pretty much raised us as her own. To hear the pain in her voice, feeling as though she had failed my sister, that her love was not enough. That was very trying.

And as a brother, a sibling, I went through my own trials of guilt. Feeling as though I should have been there more, that I should have been doing more to protect my sisters from harm but I was too busy living my own life, doing my own thing. 

You never really know what these life-changing events can do to a person.

When I made the decision to run for my sister and for the Center For Native American Youth’s mission, I naively thought that my only role was going to be to run. At the time I was not at all comfortable speaking in public and so in the beginning it was very difficult finding the words. Not only that, I’m sharing such a personal story. That in itself is not an easy thing to do.

As things moved forward I began to realize that there were lessons to be taken from what my family and I went through. Things I felt could help others. And in the process of traveling and visiting with other communities, sharing this story, I began to see that all of this was a form of therapy. Healing. I would go out, share, and feel like there was a greater purpose for what took place in 2003. That perhaps my sister leaving this world was for a reason. 

A question that stayed with me for the longest time was, “Why?”. Why did this happen? Why did my sister leave? And though I would give anything to have my sister back, I’ve seen the good work that has been done in her name. In her honor. And I’m grateful to be a part of that.

When you were running through the marathons, what did you think about? What helped you finish when you were tired?

At the time of the marathons I was still serving as Secretary on our Tribal Council. I thought about the importance of taking that leadership platform and using it to send a strong message. Not only to my own community, but also to Indian country. We allow ourselves to get caught up in so much selfish and negative thinking at times. I just wanted to set an example and show others what I thought leadership looked like. In my opinion, it was a moment where all that negative got pushed to the side and the positive outshined everything. Body, Mind, Spirit.

Going into the marathons, I had no idea whether my body would hold up; if I would be injured. Mentally, I could only prepare so much and really didn’t know what was waiting for me out there. The spontaneous urge to just give up and call it a day. “You tried your best.” I reached out to some good people before I set out on this path and asked them to pray for me. Asked them to help show me how to pray. Honestly, I’ve never prayed so much in my life as I did before I ran the 10 marathons! Ha. But I don’t think I could have got through those 262 miles had it not been for my faith that everything was going to be ok. It was my spirit and the spirit of others that helped me through the marathons.

What do you think communities need to do to make tribal members more aware of suicide?

We need to take warning signs seriously. We need to be willing to confront suicide and address it accordingly and without stigma.

I understand that is easier said than done. As a young boy, growing up, I was told that if a person chooses to take their own life then their spirit is not going to make it to where it needs to be in the next world. When my sister committed suicide I could not help but wonder where she was. Was what we are taught true?

And as time went on my sister’s death just seemed to be something that happened. That didn’t seem right to me. A young person just took their own life and we’re not going to say anything about it? 

I can only speak from my own experiences and understand that we all handle situations in different ways. But for me, personally, I feel that suicide and prevention need to be discussed openly. A friend who is also an advocate for suicide prevention recently shared a comment heard in her community. She was told that the reason her community does not speak about suicide is because they fear it is contagious and using the word ‘suicide’ will cause members to take their own lives.

What advice would you give to someone who is upset and thinking about suicide?

It is important that we not only say but also show each other how important we are to one another. I was an addict by the age of 13 and had my own thoughts of suicide as a teenager. As a boy I was raised by my grandmother because my mom was an alcoholic / drug addict and my dad was also an alcoholic and out of the picture.

I remember at age 15 being high, sitting in the back seat of my best friend’s car and thinking to myself, “Alright, this is going to be the rest of your life. I’ll just give up now and become a drug addict. Nobody will care.” I share that because when I was younger I never thought about tomorrow. I never thought that things could get better and that what I was going through at the time was temporary. I had never considered the possibilities.

It seems like such a simple thing, something we often take for granted: the ability to show compassion and love. The smallest gesture can mean so much to a person. A smile, a friendly “hello” or a handshake. I’m sure we’ve all had those moments we let pass by, times where we could have given more of ourselves but didn’t for one reason or another. Give that time. Show your heart to others. It matters.

These websites are links to more information on suicide

www.cnay.org

www.wernative.org

www.nativecry.org

www.afsp.org

 

Dirk Whitebreast is available for speaking engagements, he suggests either following him on social media through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and also by e-mail: Dirk.whitebreast@gmail.com
Editor’s Note: This article was first posted on the Wellbound Storytellers website. Used with permission.  All rights apply.

Go to: http://wellboundstorytellers.com/2014/09/10/suicide-prevention/

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