Zero Suicide: Making Suicide a Never Event in Indian Country

Sadé Heart of the Hawk Ali, Tribal Lead and a Senior Project Associate at the Zero Suicide Institute, aims to educate healthcare providers on how to apply the tenets of the Zero Suicide Model in ways that resonate with the culture of indigenous communities.

In her presentation, “Making Suicide a Never Event – Zero Suicide in Indian Country,” to the Suicide Prevention Center of New York’s “AIM for Zero: Suicide Care is Healthcare” symposium September 28-30, Ali emphasized that suicide care must align with indigenous understandings of loss of life and taboos around language.

Ali explained that diversity of beliefs exists among the estimated 574 tribes, villages, bands, and nations recognized by the U.S. government, although universal truths are shared such as reverence for a greater power, honoring ancestors and the land, and belief in traditional medicines and healing ways.

Part 10 in a Series about the Zero Suicide Model for Healthcare

She described how indigenous communities that see high suicide rates are affected by historical and current-day trauma that impacts suicidality, ranging from genocide, war, forced relocation, missing and murdered indigenous relatives, the ongoing discovery of mass graves of schoolchildren torn from their families, destruction of food and water supplies, and cultural appropriation in the form of sports team mascots.

“If you’re working with us, one of the main things to know is that we have survived layers upon layers upon layers of trauma,” she said. “There have been many assaults on us and this really creates trauma amongst our people. We are not only talking about the trauma that is passed down generationally but there’s also modern day trauma that we’re experiencing right now.”

Noting that the Zero Suicide Model’s framework has not been validated for indigenous people, she argued for the need to “indigenize” the model’s seven elements in order to adapt it for safer suicide care in indigenous communities.

She said that this involves understanding the cultural contexts of the communities being served by the Zero Suicide Model, requiring cultural humility among mental health providers, utilizing tribal elders and indigenous community members in implementing elements of Zero Suicide, and respecting the value of traditional concepts of healing and ancestral ways.

“Western ways will be much more readily accepted by the person seeking services if they know that their traditional ways are honored as well,” Ali said.

She explained, for example, terms such as “life promotion” should be encouraged in place of suicide prevention. “Many of our languages have no word for suicide,” Ali said. “The word ‘suicide,’ or even talking about someone who took their own life, is taboo in many of our tribes.”

READ MORE: The Zero Suicide Model in Tompkins CountyIf you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.