In the world of statistics, Native communities are always highlighted as “over-achievers” when it comes to disparities: alcoholism; substance abuse; diabetes; co-morbidity; the highest rates of unemployment and poverty; the lowest education and completion of school. We are identified as either a relic of the romantic past or a disgraceful representation of failed government policy in the present.
What is not talked about are our family members. Those alcoholics, those impoverished pan-handlers, those inmates in jail and prison, and those obituaries. They are our family and we love them.
On July 25, 2013, a young woman named Allison Fitzhugh (Shuswap Salish) took her life to the shock and disbelief of friends and family. She had been an advocate and a beacon for Native youth living with mental illness, and an inspiration to everyone whom she encountered.
A graduate of NAMI’s first all-Native In Our Own Voice training, she presented at conferences and trainings, focusing specifically on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice due to her own traumatic experiences.
Serving on Tennessee’s Behavioral Health Advisory Committee for Blue Cross Blue Shield, Allison took a leadership role in the Youth Services subcommittee.
Having experienced a psychotic break during her final semester of college in 2008, and unable to return to school or pursue full-time work, Allison had made advocacy her life. And she took her inspiration to the people living in the most dire of circumstances, those institutions and jails - as a patient and an inmate. It was as if Life had asked her “will you bring hope to the darkest places?” and she answered “yes” most faithfully. She would always tell them she loved them.
Her memorial service was packed with people from all walks of life: Native friends and family, school mates, church community members, police officers, former inmates and patients, and even one judge who had sentenced her.
I ask that when the next statistics are released, when Allison shows only as another Native youth whose death was suicide by hanging, that people remember that these numbers are our friends and family, that we love them, and that with the improvement in understanding and treatment of mental health challenges, we may be able to hold on to more of them.
Jimi Kelley, Behavioral Health Consultant