BSU professor explores suicide prevention for Indian communities

Understanding one’s connection to a broader community and teaching the value of what each individual can bring to that community can play an important role in preventing suicide among Native American populations, according to research to be presented by Bemidji State University’s Dr. John Gonzalez.

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Gonzalez, an associate professor of psychology at Bemidji State, will be presenting as part of the Collaborative Research Center for American Indian Health’s 2014 Indian Health Summit, June 10-11 in Bemidji. He will be co-presenting a panel on factors that can help protect American Indian people from thoughts of suicide, June 11 at Sanford Center.

Gonzalez and his co-presenter, Dr. James Allen, head of biobehavioral health and population science at the University of Minnesota Duluth, will explore the similarities between the Yup’ik people of Alaska and indigenous people in northern Minnesota.

“There are a lot of similarities in terms of their values and world view, and also in terms of oppression, acculturation, cultural loss and language loss, and how those things affect suicide,” Gonzalez said. “As a result, we have similar patterns of suicide in these communities.”

20140609-Gonzalez-John-webGonzalez said the primary question he and Allen explored was whether programs intended to reduce suicide should focus on eliminating risk factors for suicide or on protective factors.

“We’ve learned that it’s actually better to focus on protective factors instead of thinking about risk,” he said. “What are the things that help protect youth from thoughts of suicide?”

The pair will focus on cultural protective factors, including the Yup’ik concept ellangneq, which defines one’s connection to the surrounding world.

“Someone who has ellangneq understands the connection between themselves and others,” Gonzalez said. “They understand those connections, and they understand the consequences for their behavior. They also understand their connection to their environment, to their ancestors and even to their future offspring. It’s an awareness of the world around them.

“There’s a phrase in Ojibwe, bimaadiziwin, which means ‘the good life.’ In that concept, there are all these reasons that the creator gave to us to life a good life — the reason we’re here on this Earth,” Gonzalez said. “We can talk about that and look at the similarities between bimaadiziwin and ellangneq. This helps young people to think about their life, and not to have thoughts of killing themselves.”

Gonzalez also will discuss the concept of community efficacy, which helps young people to learn that they have a place in a broader community and an important role to play in that community. He will explore how the Yup’ik use rites of passage associated with hunting and fishing activities to show young people how their activities can help connect them to a larger community.

“When a young person has his or her first catch, the Yup’ik have a celebration around that rite of passage and they give all of that food away to elders and others in the community that need it,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a ceremonial thing, incorporated into the community, and it lets the young person know that they have a place and a role to play. This helps develop community efficacy, and I think the same thing could apply down here.”

About the 2014 American Indian Health Summit
The 2014 American Indian Health summit, which will be held June 11 at Bemidji’s Sanford Center, will focus on providing attendees with the latest strategies for using interdisciplinary research to impact tribal communities, particularly relating to health care and wellness issues. Topics to be covered include strategies for building data resources for research, incorporating Indian values into research methodologies, health needs assessments of American Indian communities and the influence of cultural health on the abuse of prescription drugs. The summit, which opens with a June 10 pre-summit workshop on the use of traditional foods in the promotion of healthy lifestyles, held in BSU’s Beaux Arts Ballroom, is supported by a grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

About the Collaborative Research Center for American Indian Health
The center was formed in 2012 to help tribal communities and health researchers collaborate on research intended to improve the health of American Indians in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota. The center focuses attention on issues surrounding poverty, low levels of education, low socio-economic status, crime and a greater exposure to environmental hazards that play a role in increased health risks of American Indian and Alaska Native populations.

Dr. John Gonzalez, associate professor of psychology; (218) 755-2881
• Collaborative Research Center for American Indian Health: (605) 312-6232,

Collaborative Research Center for American Indian Health
Summit information