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Mindfulness practice helps students appreciate themselves and others

Suicide prevention efforts help Two Eagle River School students

By Lailani Upham

Erica Shelby shares ideas with her group during the mindfulness-based suicide prevention training that was held nearly two years ago at Salish Kootenai College campus. (Courtesy photo) Erica Shelby shares ideas with her group during the mindfulness-based suicide prevention training that was held nearly two years ago at Salish Kootenai College campus. (Courtesy photo)

PABLO — The moment is the most powerful tool to transform a direction and decision in life, according to believers in mindfulness.

A suicide prevention study that used the mindfulness practice began in a local tribal school was solely helpful to the students, and was preordained to help the community as a whole as well.

It did and not just from the programs’ objective but from the hearts of the students as well, as they tapped into their own ‘moment’ and awareness in the journey of life.

The Mindfulness program, “Circle of Trust Suicide Prevention Program,” with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Social Services, received funding the American Psychological Foundation and the Colorado Injury Control Research nearly two years ago to investigate whether a mindfulness-based prevention intervention can be translated and implemented with Native American youth.

However, the study did benefit the Two Eagle River students group in a vast way: it went beyond them moving higher in their individual lives to moving into a large scope – helping others around them.

Erica Shelby, a Mindfulness facilitator at TERS, said she noticed the technique affect the students in a positive direction, fairly quickly.

“They weren’t getting into trouble as much. They started talking about bigger things like how to help their school and community with suicide prevention.”

The conversation changed to wanting to see change, Shelby added. “They talked about ideas and opened up more as time went on.”

In the beginning of the study or “group,” the students had a hard time talking about suicide and how it may have affected their lives personally or someone they knew, Shelby explained.

Shelby said she recalls a student telling her that it was the first time they ever talked about it and felt it something they needed to simply cope with on their own and move on. “They needed to let it out,” Shelby said. Not only did the students “let it out” in the group setting but also in the poetry and other art form, Shelby explained.

The Mindfulness practice developed from an idea from Thao N. Le from the University of Hawaii, also Lead Principal Investigator and Program Director of the study.

Le had worked with CSKT Tribal Social Services on a couple projects from the Colorado Research Center prior to the Mindfulness project. However, her connection with implementing the project came from her idea of wanting to work with an Indian tribal community. She was directed from a colleague to talk with Judy Gobert, former CSKT Tribal Social Service Grants Program Manager.

“She had to explain it (mindfulness) to me at first. After hearing what it was, I told her we used to use that to train our young warriors and women on how ‘to be,’” Gobert stated.

Gobert explained that when a young man went to battle he had to be mindful of his surroundings, where he was and what he was doing. “To be aware of the smells and what he was hearing and seeing to be more effective. A warrior could not be in the middle of battle and when he saw someone he loved get killed break out into a rage and let his emotional sense take over – he had to be focused and stay on track in battle,” she added. Gobert said this was mindfulness to a tee – and said it was always practiced in Native cultures.

The modern day practice may be in hunting, beading, ceremonies, sweats, drumming, sun dance and other ways that connect the mind to the body and spirit and the now.

Le’s response was agreeable; she said she thought so, thus her purpose in bringing into a tribal community for suicide prevention in youth.

The study at TERS went through the 2012-2013 school year. The two aims were to engage translation of mindfulness curriculum for cultural relevancy with Native traditions.

“We collaborated with elders, community practioners, cultural committee member in this effort,” Gobert explained.

The second aim was to conduct a feasibility study of the culturally adapted curriculum at TERS.

The class size was nine to 16 students each quarter. It was an elective class that lasted 55 minutes for ten weeks.

Shelby said she noticed after the course students reported they were much more focused on tests and one person reported only missing two questions on their driver’s test.

According to the “Translating and Implementing a Mindfulness-Based Youth Suicide Prevention Intervention in a Native American Community” Journal of Child and Family Studies, Le and Gobert wrote that the qualitative data with the youth showed that the most salient theme was helpfulness. Under helpfulness they say mindful breathing came up most frequently, followed by awareness, relaxation, and calmness.

One student reported, “Meditating helps my hyperness and helps me focus. It’s only hard for me to get started on meditating; after that I’m good and when I am supposed to concentrate on breathing I just imagine a big blue circle growing and shrinking with each breath.”

Another participant stated, “I never thought the mind was capable of such extraordinary images that they can be incredibly relaxing.”

“My breathing helps me stay still and focus, my thoughts slow down,” another student reported.

In a recent interview on the Oprah Network, Mariel Hemingway, actress, supermodel, and the granddaughter of the great American novelist and journalist Ernest Hemingway, says she found her life and hope in using mindfulness practice. She experienced seven suicides in her family lineage including her grandfather Ernest and her older sister.

She says mindfulness is a spiritual practice. “Its not just about meditation, its everything. How you wake up in morning; how you breathe; do you have good thoughts? From the time you wake up it’s making your mind a mindful practice,” she said in a live interview.

“Every day is an opportunity to find ways big and small to transform our lives and to grow spiritually. It’s the daily rituals that creates mindfulness,” Hemingway said.

In Le and Gobert’s journal, they state “mindfulness may be a particularly appropriate prevention approach for suicide because it resonates with Native American spirituality in several important ways. First, one of the core components of mindfulness involves cultivating ‘right’ intentions including openness, acceptance/non- judgment, kindness, and compassion. One is instructed to engage with whatever arises in oneself be it thoughts, emotions, sensations, even disturbing ones, with these virtues. Eventually, it becomes natural, even habitual, to extend these virtues to others, including family members, tribal members, and the world at large.”

Shelby said she noticed, “The students were being aware of the present moment and trying to put away what happened or is going to happen and be able to be accepted anything without judgment.”

Students would sit in a circle and find a comfortable place to sit and focus on breathing. “It takes practice,” Shelby said. “I’m still learning more every day as I practice it (mindfulness).”

Le and Gobert’s study state that “mindfulness also resonates with Native American ways of being in that an important consideration in suicide prevention intervention concerns perceived obstacles and barriers that may prevent individuals from receiving the necessary services, stemming from perceptions of shame, stigma, embarrassment, social disapproval, or not wanting to be a burden to their family or community.”

The research team added that Natives might be hesitant to seek or receive services due to issues of confidentiality, particularly if they reside in small communities with limited community health resources.

Le and Gobert add, “Native Americans report unmet mental health needs not because of access or lack of available of mental health services, but because many of the current therapeutic, clinical interventions reflect Western worldviews that are inconsistent with Native American culture and epistemology. Many Native American communities view health and well-being as a complex interplay of different factors, processes, and relationships including spirituality.”

TERS, CSKT Tribal Social Service and Le, the intervention developer, worked closely to examine the curriculum for cultural content that included carefully examining the goals and concepts of the curriculum and the specific metaphors used to ‘‘bridge bodily-grounded experiences with culturally shaped narratives’’

Facilitators were CSKT tribal members with strong ties to tribal youth culture and were identified and recruited by the team. They were required to model authenticity and vulnerability, to model learning ‘to be’ with what is, and to conduct the group with open-heartedness, in a more guiding relationship style.

According to the Journal Report, none of the facilitators had a formal mindfulness practice; however, all noted that they engaged in some form of informal mindfulness practices including meditation, sweating in lodges, beading, fishing, or hiking on sacred trails. Training for facilitators included a two and a half day intensive mindfulness and mindfulness group facilitation for one and three hours per week over nine weeks.

In the Child and Family Studies journal, both facilitators and school administrators both felt that the intervention was positive and transformative experience for the students; in particular it was mentioned that the group process was instrumental in helping them to develop friendships that fostered the youth to open up and share more than usual.

Facilitators added they enjoyed the interaction and connection with the youth and learning alongside them, which helped them deepen their own mindfulness practice.

One student expressed, “I liked tracking thoughts in mindful acceptance.”

Another student said, “I love forgiveness. I like to try and start every day new as if no on e has done me wrong. You can’t move to a new town every day so you have to be at some sort of peace with the people surrounding you.”

Another student stated, “I judge myself a lot, all the time…loving kindness meditation helps.”

The conclusion of the pilot study from last year, Le and Gobert state that “although mindfulness-based interventions have been well established, well researched, and well documented for a variety of psychological, and behavioral problems for adults, along with fewer studies concerning children and adolescents, this study is particularly innovative in it focuses on native American youth. To our knowledge, a mindfulness intervention for Native American youth has not been adapted, translated, and tested. This feasibility study suggests that mindfulness-based prevention intervention for indigenous communities is one that can be culturally valid and sustainable in real world settings, particularly if approached and implemented collaboratively.”

Shelby says she hopes to see the practice happening in the community soon. “The teaching of mindfulness is that everything has a life and a natural death.” Remembering, “This too shall pass,” she said. Learning to move on and understanding that feelings are like clouds – you acknowledge them and then their gone.” Moving on and not holding on to the negative immediate thought is what she says it has taught her.

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