For Red Lake teens, suicide risk is ever-present
For Red Lake teens, suicide risk is ever-present
Paul Levy Star Tribune Staff Writer
Published August 7, 2005
RED LAKE, MINN. -- TeAnn Lyons had been telling her mother for years that
she had "big plans." But not on this day, her mother thought. It was
Presidents' Day 2004, a no-school day, and TeAnn, 16, was home on the Red
Lake Reservation, sitting on a couch, in her pajamas, leaning against a
stuffed giraffe a friend bought her, watching cartoons.
"A picture of contentment," Maureen Lyons recalled.
Maureen asked her only daughter if she'd like to accompany her to Bemidji,
a 35-minute drive. Not today, TeAnn replied. Maureen wasn't surprised. Big
plans aside, TeAnn often told family and friends that she never wanted to
leave the reservation.
She never would again.
Twenty minutes after leaving home, Maureen Lyons' cell phone rang. TeAnn --
immensely popular, a straight-arrow who friends and family say kept a
healthy distance from drugs and alcohol -- was found hanging from the
basement ceiling by her belt.
"She was like a Dear Abby, with everybody coming to her with their
problems," Maureen Lyons recalled. "There are a lot of kids with problems
on this reservation. Maybe it was too much to handle."
While suicide rates have declined for the general population, they continue
to rise among American Indians, U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona told
the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in June.
Pressures on teenagers, already vast, seem magnified on reservations.
Suicide, the third-leading cause of death for all Americans 15 to 19 years
old, is the second-leading cause for American Indians in the same age
group, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
Three million Indian youths are at risk for suicide, but only one-third
receive treatment, say experts from Indian Health Service, the federal
health program for American Indians and Alaska natives.
In Minnesota, the rate of suicide among Indians 15 to 24 years old is twice
that of any other racial or ethnic group, according to the Minnesota
Department of Health. The rate of teen suicide among Indians is three times
the national average. And in some states, the suicide rate of Indian teens
is eight times higher than those in all other racial groups, Carmona said.
"It's heartbreaking," said Floyd (Buck) Jourdain, tribal chairman at Red
Lake, a reservation where heartbreak keeps getting in the way of recovery.
"One suicide would be tragic for a community this size," said Jourdain, a
former youth counselor. "But this has been going on here for two or three
years. And not just young men. We're losing beautiful young Indian girls to
There have been two teen suicides on the reservation since the March 21
rampage at Red Lake High School in which Jeff Weise, 16, killed nine people
before taking his own life. But the reservation was already ripe with the
depression that leads to teens contemplating suicide.
In 2004, there were 69 attempted suicides by teenagers on the Red Lake
Reservation; three were successful, according to data compiled by Fred
Desjarlait, a mental health technician at the Indian Health Service
hospital in Red Lake. There were 15 more attempts through the first five
months of this year, according to Desjarlait's data.
During the 2004-05 school year, a total of 589 students were enrolled in
Red Lake's middle and high schools, according to the Minnesota Department
of Education. In a 2004 statewide survey, 81 percent of ninth-grade girls
at Red Lake said they had thought about killing themselves compared with 42
percent of ninth-grade girls statewide. Among boys, 43 percent of the Red
Lake ninth-graders thought about suicide, compared with 25 percent of
ninth-grade boys statewide.
"It's like a cancer, an epidemic; you hear about a suicide attempt at least
once a week," said Wendy Johnson of Redby, whose son, Andy Morrison, 15,
hung himself at home on the reservation three years ago.
"Is there something different about depression with Indian people?" Dr.
Craig Vanderwagen, chief medical officer of Indian Health Service and
assistant surgeon general, asked from his office in Rockville, Md.
Then he answered his question:
"Look at the risk factors: You have the trauma of generations of parents
dealing with depression and self-medicating with food or alcohol. Add to
the mix isolation, poverty and racism. That's an explosive combination.
"And then these kids are exposed to the Internet and TV and see a world
that doesn't reflect the reality of the life they're living."
Maureen Lyons wants to blame the Internet, at least in part, for her
"It changes these kids," she said while taking a break from her job in the
accounts department of Red Lake's casino. "There's violence on the
Internet. I tell other parents to watch their kids' moods after these
teenagers go online.
"Teenagers get caught up in a moment and they cannot see beyond that time,"
Losing her friends
The national media placed Red Lake under a microscope after the killings at
the high school in March. But with three teen suicides last year and three
more this year -- including Weise -- the reservation is being monitored by
health experts from northern Minnesota to the nation's capital.
Vanderwagen, who visited Red Lake after the killings at the high school,
said teen suicides often run in cycles. When an act of violence, such as
the March shootings, occurs, it's important to identify the kids who are at
highest risk, the teens who might consider suicide as a spinoff to a major
But TeAnn Lyons' suicide occurred 13 months before the Weise shootings.
To this day, nobody has offered an explanation for her death. Not the
friend whom she called after her mother left for Bemidji, the one who
rushed to the house to find TeAnn hanging in the basement.
Not Aleshia Pemberton, 18, who went into such a funk after her best
friend's death -- her third teenage friend to commit suicide -- that she
enlisted in the Navy.
"I just wanted to get out of Red Lake and all the problems going on," she
said before leaving for the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois
Said Vernelle Lussier, 18, valedictorian at Red Lake High School in May:
"I've lost four good friends to suicide. It's crazy. They were all lost.
And they stay lost. I was always told that when you take your own life,
you're stuck between worlds. You can't go anywhere. It's almost like the
spirit is still around wanting to take someone else with them because
"But TeAnn. ... My gosh, she was so happy. When word spread around school,
everybody hurt. Nobody could believe it could happen to her. But stuff like
this really does happen here."
TeAnn had never been in serious trouble, her mother said. One time she
"wrecked" her brother's car, Maureen Lyons said, "but that was just
typical, crazy teenager stuff."
Her mother continued: "We talked a lot. She called all the time. I even
knew what kind of pizza she was eating when she went out. Why would she
snap so suddenly? Was it hormones? Why was she taken from us? Just, boom!
And she was gone. Why?"
Isolation an issue
Most people -- parents, fellow teens, even medical experts -- don't readily
recognize the hints of depression that ultimately result in teen suicide
attempts, said Jim Brown, behavioral health specialist for Indian Health
Service in Bemidji.
Peer pressure is "horrendous" for teens anywhere, Brown said, but some
isolated rural areas and reservations seem to be "hot spots" for teen
suicide. Last year, 288 teenagers attempted suicide -- with 10 succeeding
-- on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles North Dakota and
South Dakota, Carmona said.
Other areas considered hot spots for teen suicide attempts are Aberdeen,
S.D., and rural Michigan, Brown said. Last week, in Billings, Mont.,
American Indian youths attended a conference to learn how to prevent
suicide among their peers.
"This is more than just a regional issue," said Constance James, CEO at the
Indian Health Service hospital in Red Lake. "Disease that leads to suicide
does not recognize geographical boundaries."
Dr. Kathleen Annette, head of Indian Health Service's Bemidji Region that
includes all of Minnesota, notes that every teenager asks, "Who am I?"
"Add poverty, hopelessness, despair and depression, and you have a recipe
of self-destruction," Annette said. "That formula would be disastrous for
Yet, TeAnn Lyons -- a 5-foot-11-inch basketball-loving kid with a smile as
bright as the highlights in her hair -- just didn't seem to fit the
One of the first people Maureen Lyons sought after her daughter's suicide
was Wendy Johnson, whose son, Andy, hung himself with clothesline at home
on May 28, 2002.
An aunt had been stabbed to death that morning, and Andy later quarreled
with a relative. But was that enough for Andy to take his own life?
"Three years later I still don't know," Johnson said. "How does anybody get
to this point? Why do kids think this is any answer?"
She knows of a few parents on the reservation who have police scanners --
anything to monitor potential trouble spots.
"Mostly, I tell parents to let their kids know that you care," Johnson
Running for attention
Jourdain talks enthusiastically about an Honor the Youth Spiritual Run,
scheduled for Aug. 18-21, with events planned to increase awareness of a
new Native Crisis Hotline based out of Women of Nations in St. Paul and to
promote a new Native Youth Suicide, Drug/Alcohol and Violence Prevention
Runners will travel from St. Paul through Mille Lacs, Leech Lake, Bemidji
and Red Lake, giving teens a chance to promote the hotline and to speak
out, pray and feast.
"We want to be proactive, not just reactive," said Indian Health Service's
Meanwhile, Lyons and hundreds of other parents on reservations nationwide
are left with shattered dreams and haunting questions.
"Do our children really know the pain that their parents, siblings and best
friends go through?" Maureen Lyons asked. "I will not see my daughter in a
high-school graduation gown, a wedding dress. Nor will I witness the birth
of my grandchild from her."
Lyons offered this advice to any teen contemplating suicide: "Teenage
suicide really is getting to be a common reality on the reservation, but
there's a big world out there just waiting for you. Don't get caught up in
the moment. I know the heartache and pain that you will leave behind.
"Memories and a broken heart are all I have left."
Paul Levy is at
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