Healthy Life Choices Workshops Shed Light on the Challenges Facing Pine Ridge Youth

posted April 27, 2017

Red Cloud High School students spend the vast majority of their class time grappling with advanced concepts in math, exploring new periods in history, or mastering new conversations in the Lakota language. But this week, as part of a series of Healthy Life Choices workshops held throughout the year, they engaged in an interactive session focused on something much more personal: the impact that addiction and abuse can have in the life of a family.

Students listened intently as a trained mental health counselor shared her own experience growing up with an alcoholic parent, describing how she once contemplated suicide and how she ultimately found her way back. And they reflected on the ways that addiction—something that continues to plague communities on the Pine Ridge Reservation—has affected their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.

The workshop, said Junior Manuel Yellow Horse, offered some powerful tools to those living with or around addiction.

“She gave real life examples: her dad had a drinking problem, and she wanted to share her knowledge of that experience with us,” said Manuel. “And she gave us resources so that if there is someone going through the same thing, they can get help with coping.”

Addiction is just one of the many intractable challenges that frequently affect young people growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In a place afflicted with some of the country’s highest rates of poverty, trauma, violence, and grief are far too common. But each day, Red Cloud’s team of trained counselors seeks new ways to address those challenges head on. Their mission is make sure every student has the support and resources they need to thrive—mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

As part of that work, Red Cloud’s counseling department launched the Healthy Life Choices Workshop series several years ago to highlight issues from physical health and bullying to depression and suicide prevention. These in-depth sessions are meant to engage students in open, honest dialogue about a range of complex challenges facing youth and families on Pine Ridge. Through both presentations and interactive exercises, students have a chance to reflect on some of their toughest obstacles in their lives—and to access the support and resources they need to overcome them.

The goal of the workshops, says Red Cloud’s lead mental health counselor Br. Joe Fleischman, SJ, MA, LPC, is to create a safe environment for students to share their struggles and concerns.

“The realities of growing up on the reservation face all of our students, in one way or another—whether it’s a lack of stability at home, or having a parent or close relative suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, or dealing the grief that stems from the higher rates of preventable death we see here,” said Br. Joe. “Through these workshops, we want to open up the conversation about these really difficult topics—and to help our students find healthy ways to cope with what they might be facing in their lives.”

At the beginning of each school year, Red Cloud’s counseling team gathers to discuss options for each workshop topics. Based on what they’ve seen students struggling with, they plan out what each session will address. In addition to this week’s focus on addiction and abuse, this year’s workshops examined depression and suicide prevention, dysfunctional relationships, and how to use healthy coping skills. Last year, workshops dealt with topics like bullying, ways to address grief, and how to use mindfulness to support overall health.

Counselors also think through how to present each workshop topic in a way that will engage students more deeply. Through a long-standing partnership with Red Cloud, Catholic Social Service counselors often provide expert resources and presentations. And recently, a Rapid City-based, youth-led group called Teen Up visited Red Cloud to offer an interactive workshop on topics ranging from healthy relationships, drug use, and “sexting.” Students from the Teen Up program performed a number of skits to illustrate the importance of making healthy choices.

“Our own students were pretty engaged in the process,” said Kathleen Parkinson, another Red Cloud counselor. “It was great to see peers delivering a positive and educational message to peers.” 

In addition to encouraging group dialogue and reflection, Healthy Life Choices workshops also help counselors identify individual students who may be in need of additional support. After each session, all students fill out a brief survey where they can note if they are struggling with the issues discussed during the workshop. They can also write in other problems they are experiencing—and if they feel they need emergency assistance.

Br. Joe says that approximately 15 students have asked for counseling after each Healthy Life Choices day on campus. For him, these workshops have represented another important tool in making sure that every Red Cloud student feel valued and supported. 

“Collectively, through our teachers, counselors, coaches, and so many others, I think Red Cloud does a really good job at creating a safe place for our students,” explained Br. Joe. “Even if a student’s life at home can sometimes be chaotic, they know they are surrounded here on campus by caring adults who are prepared to support them on all sides.” 

For Red Cloud students like Manuel, that support is something they can always count on—no matter what challenge they might be facing.

“The counselors at Red Cloud are there for you, as someone you can talk to if you’re not able to talk to your parents,” said Manuel. “They give you that emotional and physical support, so that you never feel that you’re alone.”

Photos © Red Cloud Indian School


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