Courtesy National Indian Youth Leadership Project
It takes a community to help prevent suicide.

On Mental Courage and My Frustrations With Suicide Prevention

Beau Washington
September 25, 2013

Many of us have warrior blood in us. Protecting our family, our tribes and our nations is a great honor, which we’ve had plenty of experience doing. We honor our veterans and have great pride in our warriors serving in the military.

When I was young I played war games doing heroics like falling on a pretend grenade to save others, just like Eastern Band Cherokee Medal of Honor recipient Charles George did in Korea.  

Honor is a large part of Native culture. I remember Elders talking to me about shame. I learned to not shame myself by doing bad things. Believe me. When I was young I sure needed these kinds of talks. Sometimes it was shortened to “Boy-howdy, your Mama is going to be mad when she finds out you did that.” There are so many things to learn. A friend recently wrote on Facebook that “life is hard for Natives.” It is, especially when Trickster Thoughts are involved to make things worse.

Working in mental health, I get frustrated from time to time on several different levels. Occasionally I hear therapists complain about people not coming in for help like it is the depressed person’s fault. This always makes me bristle. The other side of the coin is the question of what are therapists doing to make it easy for a depressed person to get help? A good part of the failure does indeed belong to the therapist, and the industry for not developing an effective approach and marketing or advertising to help the person with depression–to instill in them a desire and confidence to get help. Advertising can convince people to buy some crazy stuff. It is a shame that the techniques of the psychology of advertising are being overlooked by the mental health profession to knock down the stigma of counseling. However, several Native clinics are successfully using the concept of Trickster Thoughts to reach out to their people, taking some of the mystery out of good mental health. I am very happy to see this change.

A psychologist told me that he was confronted by some Native women who said something like, “You are killing our people! You are supposed to know how to prevent suicide and you are not!” On the other hand I have met Native people who basically want a program that comes in and works without community participation. Here is the reason why it won’t work: According to Teresa LaFromboise, 97 percent of Natives who die from suicide do so without asking for professional help. The fact is that a friend or family member will spot a person heading for depression long before a professional will even get a chance to help. Therefore, we need to help our friends and relatives, because those in need may not ask for help. It is our responsibility too.  

As mentioned before, we need to help protect our people. This time it is the war on suicide. I know it is scary to ask if somebody is going to hurt themselves; however, if they do die, your regret may last a life time: “I should have asked. I should have done something.” Dying for others in battle takes physical courage whereas asking somebody if they “feel like ending it all” takes mental courage. Yes, it is scary to ask, but worth it.

True prevention begins early. I talked with an Army psychologist long ago about suicide prevention. He said, “We don’t practice prevention, we practice intervention.” That kind of shocked me, and as I think about it, that is what most communities do. Prevention should be taught in school, churches and service organizations throughout the community. Some of the things I know about depressed people are that they are overwhelmed, have many Trickster Thoughts, have poor memory (rumination takes up so much though that we have a hard time focusing on anything else, thus we can not store it into our memory banks), and dwell on problems that make Trickster Thought seem real. These few reasons are why we need to learn how to chase the Tricksters away before disaster happens.

We all have a responsibility to help fight whatever enemies are killing our people. We are warriors. The war on suicide requires us to use our heads instead of weapons. Trickster Thoughts are the enemy. Thoughts cause feelings which are hard to fight if you can’t recognize them. Get to know the enemy, as they are camouflaged. They are sly and try to keep us from seeing what is accurate and true. The battle is in each one of us. Let’s win this war.

Dr. Beau Washington received his doctorate from the University of Northern Colorado. A member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Beau grew up at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, where his Father was a teacher. While researching depression, he also discovered the wide range of problems that rumination (dwelling) on problems creates in other mental problems as well. His active understanding of ruminative thought lead to developing a technique for effectively stopping the painful thoughts that plague distressed individuals. In addition, Beau developed cognitive models of depression and addiction.

Beau’s therapy model is entering the clinical trial stage at the University of New Mexico. He is training behavioral health clinics in his therapy. Beau is also adapting his therapy for sports, making it easier for players to focus on the moment.

He has also developed a Native suicide prevention program called “Coyote Thoughts” ©2013. Beau has trained Native mental health clinics and presented at reservations as well as regional and national conferences. Visit his website