BOISE — While Tamara Reuben spent an evening volunteering at the Idaho Suicide Hotline, one of her family members died by suicide.
“Why didn’t he call the hotline?” Reuben asked her daughter.
Her daughter explained that in Lapwai, on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation in north-central Idaho, they don’t know about any resources. They don’t know the number for the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline.
The topic of suicide has been near to 50-year-old Reuben, who throughout her life has had other family members experience thoughts of suicide. Reuben grew up in Lapwai, about 270 miles north of Boise, a place where she said suicide rates are high. She was inspired to make sure mental health and suicide prevention resources like the hotline were available to those in rural communities following the death of her family member.
The part she can’t believe though, is that she gets to spread that message while incarcerated. Reuben is serving a 10-year prison sentence, five of which were fixed, for a felony DUI charge.
For about the past 14 months, Reuben has volunteered with the hotline, which began a partnership with Idaho Department of Correction in the fall of 2017. Reuben was one of the first from the reentry center to become a volunteer at the hotline.
The opportunity includes 55 hours of training, and volunteers use role playing to practice answering calls a volunteer might receive. There is a background check and requirements the prisoners must pass. A volunteer cannot have committed a crime against another person.
“Women who have been through the program have seen some things,” Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline Director John Reusser said. “They’ve been through some tough times. They’re taking that wisdom and experience and challenges and using them to help people in need.”
VOLUNTEERING AT THE HOTLINE
Before volunteering with the hotline, Reuben was working as a cook at the reentry center. She saw others getting to leave for jobs during the day, and it made her feel like she didn’t have a purpose. The hotline helped her find meaning in life.
“It’s nice to know that somebody needs me,” she said. “It’s given me a purpose. I just love it.”
Currently, four women at the reentry center volunteer at the hotline.
“What we’ve found is this cohort have been some of our best volunteers,” Reusser said.
The training, Reuben said, prepared her for the real phone calls she would get. All the volunteers have a supervisor who can assist volunteers if something happens on a call they don’t know how to handle.
Angela Orr has been volunteering with the hotline since November 2018. The experience, she said, has made her more empathetic and compassionate toward others.
“Being incarcerated, this isn’t one of the things you think you’ll get to do,” Orr said.
Reuben received a certification in May for serving over 247.5 hours in 55 shifts at the center over the past year. Others at the reentry center ask her for help. When she wears the hotline T-shirts, it always starts a conversation, she said.
While she spoke to the Idaho Press in the lobby of the reentry center, she pointed toward a sliding window at the front desk where hotline number cards are usually available. All of the cards were gone.
“That tells me I need to put more up there,” she said. “People are grabbing them.”
CHALLENGES ACROSS THE STATE
“The rural areas, especially in reservations, have a lot of suicides,” Reuben said.
Suicide rates for Native American women increased by 139% in 18 years, from 1999 to 2017. For Native American men, the rate rose 70%. In the same 18-year span, suicide rates for white women increased by 68% and 40% for white men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of the 1,208 callers whose ethnicity was recorded by the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline, only four were Native Americans between January and March of this year. The center took in 3,374 calls in that period.
Idaho doesn’t have many resources for suicide prevention for those living on reservations, said Shannon Decker, co-founder of the Speedy Foundation, an organization that aims to prevent suicide in Idaho.
Reuben knows this firsthand, and also knows getting new ideas into reservations can be difficult. She has thrown ideas around with her supervisors, like video chatting with classes on reservations to show students that they can believe information they’re being given.
One of the better options right now for those in rural areas or on reservations, Decker said, would be using the county’s crisis center.
The hiccup for that is transportation. The nearest crisis center to the Nez Perce reservation in Lapwai is in Coeur d’Alene, 125 miles north. There is a North Idaho Crisis Service hotline that is free to call at night, but it’s only available to those in Boundary and Bonner counties. Lapwai, Reuben’s home, is in Nez Perce County.
There is a need for mental health resources in Idaho, which in 2016 ranked eighth highest in suicide rates across the nation.
From 2013 to 2017, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reported 49 deaths by suicide in Nez Perce County. Boundary County recorded 13 while Bonner County recorded 43 in that same time span.
Nez Perce County has a suicide rate of 20 to 39.9 deaths per 100,000 population. That compares to the statewide five-year average rate of 20.9 deaths per 100,000 population, according to the Department of Health and Welfare.
The counties with the highest suicide numbers — Ada, Canyon and Kootenai — are equipped to call the hotline in their county jails, Reuben said. Calls from other prisoners affect her the most, because she can relate to them.
Following the death of Reuben’s family member, she wanted to get vital information to her tribe up north, especially after hearing her daughter say that the number to call for help wasn’t even known. After her family member’s death by suicide, with Reuben’s help, the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline created a package with pens, posters and cards with the prevention hotline number to be handed out so that people knew who to call and would understand that it was OK to contact someone. That was sent about five months, she said.
Though she hasn’t heard if it’s helped or not, Reuben hasn’t received another call like that from her daughter since.
Reuben has 21 months to serve before she is eligible for parole, and she plans to continue volunteering with the hotline after she leaves.
Before relapsing and going back to prison, Reuben was a recovery coach. She plans to use her experience as a coach and an inmate to demonstrate a need for resources on the Nez Perce Reservation. She’s hoping to ask the tribe for funding to create a hotline to help their own people.
“This shows me I can make commitments. I’m going on my second year (volunteering),” Reuben said. “It’s giving back to the community, and it’s an awesome feeling because I think I don’t have it so bad now.”