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Pine Ridge Loses Suicide Prevention Program

June 13, 2012, 10:14 PM by Derek Olson

Pine Ridge Loses Suicide Prevention Program
PINE RIDGE, SD -

It's a problem everywhere, but on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, people are committing suicide at more than twice the national rate.

But even with that problem at epidemic levels, the tribe's only suicide prevention program has lost its funding.

"Sam was a 20-year-old man, my son.  He was a real vibrant, energetic, charismatic young man.  He meant a lot to all of us," father Clarence Yellow Hawk Sr. said.

A talented young athlete and member of the National Honor Society, Sam Yellow Hawk had fallen into trouble with gangs and had been drinking when he decided to end his life less than a month ago in the early morning hours of Friday, May 18.

"I never imagined taking my son down with a electrical cord wrapped around his neck.  That's the last thing that I ever expected and that I would ever want for anybody in this day and age.  But I hear it happens all the time," Yellow Hawk said.

Sam is buried at the family plot in No Flesh.  His is just another case of a young life cut short by suicide.

The number of people taking their own lives on the reservation peaked in 2009 with nine deaths.

"I feel like these youths, these young men and women that's taken their life should've been here today and could've been our future leaders," Pine Ridge resident Wilma Thin Elk said.

That's when the tribe stepped in.  A grant from Indian Health Services helped develop the Sweetgrass Project.  Last year, the number of suicides in Pine Ridge dropped to four.

"The rate isn't as high as it used to be, and that's all due to education and awareness and outreach activities that the Sweetgrass Project has been doing," former Sweetgrass Project coordinator Carole Crazy Thunder-O'Rourke said.

One of the project's primary missions was to take the stigma out of reaching out for help.

"A lot of the youth didn't want to tell anybody that they had ideations, that they wanted to kill themselves, that they wanted to hurt themselves or something.  But the message got out that it's okay to tell," Crazy Thunder-O'Rourke said.

"Some of these youth, they just keep things to themselves and all of a sudden they're not here and it's really sad," Thin Elk said.

"If I knew Sam needed help, if I had a hint that he was crying for it, I would've done everything in my power to help him," Yellow Hawk said.

Unfortunately, the three-year grant funding the Sweetgrass Project expired, disbanding the program last fall. It's something that's not sitting well with many on the reservation.

"Sweetgrass Program is and was needed here really bad; it's needed," Thin Elk said.

"Losing programs, such as the Sweetgrass Project, and other suicide prevention programs that are much needed on this reservation, is really detrimental.  Because you never know when a child decides that they want to take that responsibility of giving up their life," Yellow Hawk said.

Yellow Hawk's pain is shared by many on the reservation where nearly everybody has been touched by suicide in some way.

"And I know that I'm not the only one grieving.  But I want to give my prayers and support to everyone out there today who has the same pain that I do," Yellow Hawk said.

Officials say that the search is underway for a new funding source for a suicide prevention program.

The Sam Yellow Hawk memorial fund has been set up at the Wells Fargo bank in Hot Springs.  The proceeds of which will be used to help prevent future suicides.

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