November 24, 2015

By Katharine Campos

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or substance use crisis or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at to connect to a trained crisis counselor. You can also get crisis text support via the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741.

Navajo brother and sister duo Clayson and Jeneda Jenally make up the band, Sihasin. Photo courtesy of the artist.

One of those traditions that can have a positive influence on mental health is music.

Music has historically played a significant role when it comes to healing in American Indian cultures. Many ceremonies are held to help restore the balance between mind, body and spirit for those in distress. Each tribe has their own unique set of songs and chants that accompany these ceremonies. It’s believed that songs, music and dance are a way for the community to call on the spirit world to heal their loved ones.

Today, the return to these spiritual and cultural roots may be important for the well-being of the youngest members of American Indian communities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Indian youth and young adults have the highest suicide rates of any racial or ethnic group. Forty percent of all American Indian suicides involve youth ages 15 to 24.

Negative and stressful circumstances affect the lives of many young people across the nation’s reservations and may put American Indian youth at risk for suicide. Some of these include:

Research indicates that American Indian youth who have a strong cultural identity are less vulnerable to the risks for suicide than those who do not. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAHMSA), programs that strengthen youths’ connection to their community’s spiritual beliefs, traditional values and healing methods are an effective way to decrease the risk of suicide. Studies also suggest programs that teach positive life skills such as identifying negative emotions and stress, increasing communication and problem-solving skills and goal setting are helpful in preventing suicide among American Indian youth.

Drawing from American Indian heritage to spread a message of hope to youth, a new generation of musicians from these communities is taking action. An article from NPR highlights the work of Navajo brother and sister duo Clayson and Jeneda Jenally. Together they form the punk rock band Sihasin, which means ‘hope’ in Navajo. Their unique music combines the modern sounds of electric bass and drums with traditional Navajo chants.

The Jenallys travel to schools across Indian Country to teach students how to write their own songs. They help teens to express their sadness through art. Meanwhile, rappers Mike “Witko” Cliff and Naatani Means, both members of the Oglala Lakota in South Dakota, have paired up to start suicide prevention workshops in schools on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

These artistic role models are helping American Indian teens embrace their cultural identity. Through their efforts, the Jenallys, Cliff and Means encourage their listeners to take pride in their background and to create their own voices—ones that combine the strength of tradition with the realities of the modern world. When a young person plays an important role in preserving their community’s culture, it often gives him or her the strength to develop and maintain a sense of optimism for the future.

Join mental health advocates across American Indian communities this November by starting the conversation on suicide prevention, today. Now is the time to raise awareness about suicide and to learn about the useful resources that are available. Suicide is preventable, and you can make a difference. Here are some ways you can create change:

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NAMI HelpLine is available M-F, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. ET. Call 800-950-6264,
text “helpline” to 62640, or chat online. In a crisis, call or text 988 (24/7).