Visitors, staff and students at the En’owkin Centre got a warm meal and some food for thought at a lunchtime seminar last week.
Kim Montgomery leads the critical response team for the Okanagan Nation Alliance, and started her talk about suicide awareness by asking the group to respond to some very basic statements, like “suicide is wrong.”
Montgomery wasn’t surprised when about half the audience stood up to agree, and some responded that they wanted clarification, seeing more grey to the statement than just good or bad.
“Because we don’t talk about suicide, often that is how it ends up. Because they don’t think about ‘what is my attitude about suicide?,’ it is new for them,” said Montgomery. “Sometimes they are in a grey area until they sit and think about it. Some of these people will think about this for the next couple of days.”
Montgomery said the subject of suicide needs to be brought out of the closet, and people need to start talking.
“Suicide has no prejudice. It is everywhere. The more it becomes non-stigmatized in our communities, the broader community, the better,” said Montgomery. “We’re in trouble everywhere, in how easy it is to take lives,”
Anyone can find themselves in a downward spiral, and no one is too old or young to be worried about. While attending a conference, she heard from a peer who had to deal with a five-year-old committing suicide.
“That’s real. The more we talk about it, the more people will be conscious of watching their family members and making sure everyone is OK,” said Montgomery.
As Montgomery got the room talking, many shared their own experience with suicide. Whether a friend, family member or even their own attempt, few seemed to be untouched.
“In Indian country, we are constantly in grief mode. We never have a chance to fully grieve somebody before we lose somebody else,” she said, adding that deep interconnections throughout the Okanagan Nation bring the trauma closer.
“That happens all the time because of how large our families are,” said Montgomery. “In this community alone, we’ve had 20 people have self-harmed, attempted suicide or have been in violent situations in this community.
“That’s just what we know of. And that’s like that all the way up the valley, all the way down the valley.”
That constant “grief mode” can lead to desensitization.
“When you have had multiple people suicide in your life, you become almost frozen. When people become frozen like that, she said, they are not aware of what is going on around them,” said Montgomery. That lack of awareness might even apply to their own emotional state.
“Maybe that person has major problems themselves, and they aren’t paying attention to the signs that are there,” she said.
From one perspective Montgomery painted a grim picture, but she stressed the role community, friends and family play. Even her team’s role in responding to people during and after crisis, she said, was positive.
“I am a champion for life,” said Montgomery. And though she advocated people talking about their feelings, and making suicide a mainstream conversation, she said the first thing was to listen.
Most people, when they think someone is in trouble, tend to either do nothing or try to fix things, making plans for them, how to get help and so on. Going into planning mode, she said, misses the point.
“What am I missing? I am missing her talking about why she wants to die. There is a reason she wants to die, and that’s why people keep trying again and again,” said Montgomery. “We don’t put the brakes on long enough to say ‘Tell me what’s going on.’”
The first thing when somebody is in trouble, she said, is to listen.
“Everyone here has the potential to help someone who is suicidal because you all can hear,” said Montgomery. “Tell yourself to stay calm, tell yourself you don’t have to fix this. We are helpers, we care about each other, we want everyone to be OK. But it is the last thing we should be doing.
“That ability to sit on your butt, put your hands in your lap and shut your mouth is hard. It takes a long time to be comfortable, sitting across from somebody listening to them about why they don’t want to be on this Earth anymore.“
Montgomery was at En’owkin at the request of one of the National Aboriginal Professional Arts Training classes working on marketing, who organized the event, which featured homemade soups, treats and fried bread as a fundraiser for upcoming events.
It’s all part of their arts training said Lauren Terbasket, the centre’s executive director, applauding the organizing group’s efforts.
“The other piece of what we do is hands-on work, the work they do in organizing and promoting an event, is the same work they would do in any event they are a part of as performers and artists, or as people working at various initiatives in the community and the arts,” said Terbasket.