Transforming a Legend
By Rebecca A. Clay
One of Guam’s major tourist attractions is Two Lovers Point, site of a Chamorro version of Romeo and Juliet.
According to the legend, a young woman from a wealthy family fell in love with a poor warrior. The young woman’s father, the suitor chosen for her, and Spanish soldiers trapped the lovers at the edge of a cliff high above Tumon Bay. Gazing into each other’s eyes, the two lovers braided their long black hair together, shared a final kiss, and then plunged to their deaths in the roaring water below.
Now a SAMHSA-funded suicide prevention program at the Isa Psychological Services Center at the University of Guam in Mangilao is trying to undo such glorifications of suicide. I Pinangon—which means “awakening” in Chamorro—works to raise awareness about suicide on campus and in the surrounding community.
“Guam has a very high suicide rate, especially among the youth,” said I Pinangon Associate Director Eunice Joy Perez, explaining that the rate is significantly higher than that on the U.S. mainland. And the causes of suicide are different, too. According to anthropological research, she explained, most suicides in Micronesia are impulsive acts prompted not by depression but by conflict within the family or other relationships.
I Pinangon’s screenings reveal that 15 to 20 percent of students on the campus, especially the minority who live in dorms rather than commuting back to their family homes daily, think about suicide. About 70 to 80 percent report knowing someone who has died by suicide.
But because of the intense stigma surrounding suicide and mental health treatment, many students don’t know about the prevalence of suicide or what to do if someone needs help. “Seeking mental health services is seen as a weakness, and people believe that whatever problems families have should be kept within the family,” said Ms. Perez.
I Pinangon’s goal is to change all that. Its activities include depression and alcohol use screenings, training for faculty and staff, a mandatory module on suicide prevention for all freshmen, screenings of movies with suicide themes along with discussion on prevention, and an annual forum that brings together experts as well as high-ranking community leaders who describe their personal experiences with suicide. “It’s not just about preventing suicide on campus,” emphasized Ms. Perez. “We hope that when students go home or graduate they have the skills they need to identify people at risk and help them.”
A highlight of I Pinangon’s recent work is a play that gives the two lovers legend a new, modern twist.
To come up with the play, I Pinangon sponsored a play-writing contest. “Contests not only create unique products that are relevant to our population, but also stimulate interest,” said Program Assistant Camarin Meno, noting that the program has sponsored essay and tee-shirt design contests in the past. I Pinangon selected a theater department professor’s proposal as the winner and has been working with him and focus groups of students to fine-tune his draft.
In the play, which will premier this spring, the two characters are not lovers but rather a gay man suffering the effects of homophobia and a young woman who has been sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. “We hear these kinds of stories all the time,” said Ms. Perez. “The play depicts the different struggles of our students.” In this version of the legend, the two don’t leap to their deaths. Instead, they listen to each other’s stories and become friends who will support each other through rough times.
“The play turns a local legend about suicide on its head and makes it about suicide prevention,” says Ms. Meno. “It’s a perfect way to invite culture in, but with a prevention message.”