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A Path Towards HopeBrad Armstrong

A Path Toward Hope (continued)

FOR ALIDA ANTONIO, SUICIDE IS A SPIRIT. The spirit has stalked her family since January 14, 2005. That day her 14-year-old niece took her own life.

Grieving, Antonio retrieved her niece’s pictures, books, knickknacks and souvenirs. Some possessions, in the Apache tradition, went into the grave with her; the rest were stored in her daughter’s room. “We didn’t have an elder to tell us to not keep it in the house,” she recalls.

Nine days later, Antonio’s daughter, distraught by her cousin’s suicide, started drinking and, later, throwing her cousin’s pictures in her room. Antonio called the police. When they arrived and peered in the bedroom window, they saw her hanging. She was alive but would never regain consciousness. She died in a Phoenix nursing home three years later.

Then late in 2011, Antonio’s 13-year-old son attempted suicide. He survived and later said he did it because he “just got so mad” at his brother. Suicides by young people are often precipitated by emotional conflicts.

Meeting with a Celebrating Life team member and watching the video had a strong impact on her son, says Antonio. He also has been getting counseling. “It’s opened up his eyes to a lot of things,” she says. He says he will never again try to kill himself. But she still checks on him when he goes to his room. “I always have to worry,” she says.

Antonio has shared her experience with others in hopes of preventing future suicides. She urges parents to talk more with their children and reminds young people how suicide hurts families and the whole community. “The ones who are here afterwards … we are the ones who suffer,” Antonio says. “I just pray it doesn’t happen to anyone again.”

At some point Antonio realized her niece’s books and pictures had been moved into her son’s room. She worried they carried the spirit. “The books, I burned, but the pictures I saved are not in my house. They are outside,” she says.

A spirit, a dark figure, a dark force … the idea of a malignant being behind the youth suicides comes up frequently in conversations here. Outsiders may be tempted to label it a manifestation of depression or a reflection of emotional disturbance, but that assumption is wrong, says Goklish, who has led the suicide prevention team for eight years.

“You tend to expect certain things when you live in an area where there was bloodshed a long time ago,” she says. She recalls a fourth-grade girl who told her a nightmarish story. The girl said that while she was walking near her home, a dark figure in a black jacket appeared beside her and told her to walk to a nearby mountain where she would find a playground that she had never seen before. There, the figure told her, she would always be able to play and would never have to worry or be sad ever again. But first, the figure said, she would have to kill herself. The girl bolted, ran home and later told her teacher. The school nurse alerted the Celebrating Life team.

Johns Hopkins researchers take such reports very seriously. “In the communities we serve, the spiritual realm is important,” says Mary Cwik, PhD, a child clinical psychologist and a CAIH assistant scientist. “Maybe that dark force has always been around but in past times, the Apache people and other Native Americans were much closer to their original way of life. And built into that were things that discourage the [bad] spirit.”

Goklish says her Apache ancestors had many ceremonies and prayers that were woven into daily life. “You were told to get up in the morning and do prayers. If you are not feeling right, or out of balance, you were told to pray,” she says.

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