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How a Small California Town Curbed a Teen Suicide Epidemic — By Talking About It

After Indian Valley lost its sixth teenager to suicide, residents started talking about the issue openly — and it's working.
 
 
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Photo Credit: fasphotographic via Shutterstock.com

 

During the long, hard winter of 2011, the bleakest moment for Indian Valley, Calif., came with the chilling news of a sixth youth suicide. Ethan Elzea, then a reclusive 12-year-old, could name all of the dead boys: Rodney, Nate, Joaquin, Nick, Robby, Miko. But the shot that killed Nate Cunningham came closest to his heart.

Ethan, who confesses to having suicidal thoughts himself as early as the fourth grade, had followed Nate around their northern Sierra Nevada community like a little brother. They swam together and canoed in Lake Almanor. Ethan looked up to Nate, a counselor and fellow Native American. The relationship offered him respite from their home community, where racial tension and bullying are widespread.

“He was someone I could talk to,” says Ethan, now 15, slender and serious. The string of suicides—all of which occurred during a two-year period—sent him into a devastating depression. He brooded about violence, including the death of his sister’s cat, killed with a baseball bat. “I was angry at everything around me,” he says, his voice low and guarded. “I basically hit rock bottom.” For a few seconds Ethan’s eyes go dark and furious behind his maroon-rimmed glasses.

The six teen suicides shook Ethan’s rural community like an earthquake. Home to ranchers, loggers, and retirees, it is a place where almost everyone knows everyone else, often across several generations. The dead boys were sons of Indian Valley. Some were gentle, others pranksters. Some played sports, others dabbled in music. All but one were Maidu Indians, and all came from two-parent households where drugs, alcohol, and domestic violence had been longstanding problems. All had been exposed to bullying, and they knew each other well.

The community waited in stunned silence for some response from local social service providers. Greenville High School offered one day of grief counseling after the death of the oldest boy, a non-Native who had been out of school for several years, and the Maidu education center held a day-long gathering with healers and dancers. That was it. No discussion for parents, no suicide prevention training for teachers, nothing to kick-start the painful process of healing.

A close-knit community of 3,000 residents, Indian Valley had rallied together after forest fires, floods, and the threatened closure of the area’s only high school. The suicides, however, seemed to drive people into isolation. No one talked openly about them, says Susie Wilson, a lifelong resident whose husband, brother, and several close friends had killed themselves in years past. “It was as if we were all frozen in fear.”

Ethan was lucky. Though reticent himself, he comes from a talkative family. They hold weekly meetings—no electronics, no telephones—and discuss everything from daily chores to thoughts of death.

“If you talk about things, they don’t seem so bad,” says his sister Cassy, 18. “And maybe you can stop someone from committing suicide,” adds Haylee, 14.

This was the hope that inspired their mother, Marsha Ebersole, to team up with Wilson. Compelled by a yearning to spark community discussion about what was happening, the women took what now seems like an obvious first step: They held a public meeting. The gathering, in January 2012, drew about 85 people, a high turnout for any local event in January. The county director of mental health attended along with parents, Maidu elders, educators, and the Plumas County sheriff.

“This was an outpouring of heartbreak,” says Wilson.

Within a month the parents, officials, and teenagers who attended had organized the Indian Valley Youth Summit, a grassroots group that met monthly to coordinate responses to the apparent epidemic of suicidal depression among local young people.

 
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