Sadly, people all over the world suffer from depression. According to the World Health Organization, depression will be the second most debilitating disease after heart disease by the year 2020; and unless something is done about it, by 2030, it will be the No. 1 health issue throughout the world.
It’s especially troubling when our own children battle the blues. More than 10 years ago, after Randy Taran’s then-14-year-old daughter said to her one day, "I want to be happy, but I don’t know how," Taran soon learned that depression, stress and bullying run rampant among teens everywhere. Determined to help her daughter and others like her find happiness, Taran launched a global movement that went in search of it called Project Happiness.
“My background was in film, so that’s where I started,” explains Taran, who assembled a group of 25 teenagers from three different parts of the world—Santa Cruz, California, Nigeria and India—to make a documentary that tackled the seemingly impossible question, “What is lasting happiness?”
The students’ quest for answers led them to iconic thought leaders, such as director George Lucas, actor and humanitarian Richard Gere, and neuroscientist Richard Davidson. Their journey culminated with a group visit to the XIV Dalai Lama in India, a spiritual leader who is supposed to have all the answers.
“I don’t want to give away what the Dali Lama said, but it was the opposite of what we were expecting,” says Taran. “In the end, we learned that happiness is different for each one of us; it’s a journey we all have to take. But the great news is that happiness can be taught.”
With that concept in mind, Project Happiness has grown from an award-winning documentary that has been translated into seven languages into a handbook and educational curriculum that combines positive psychology, mindfulness and neuropsychology, and is available, free of charge, to schools and other educational institutions all over the world. Currently, the Project Happiness curriculum is being taught in schools in more than 55 countries.
Naturally, it was only a matter of time before Rayna Madero and Taran crossed paths. Madero, a Quechan native who lives in Las Vegas, founded Native Cry Outreach Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to suicide prevention within the Native American community.
Suicide rates in Indian Country are jaw-dropping. According to testimony by the U.S. Surgeon General, suicides among Native American youth, ages 15 to 24, is 3.3 times higher than the national average. What’s more, 40 percent of all suicides in Indian Country happen within this age group.
Madero knows this statistic all too well. “I lost my 19-year-old niece to suicide, and then a month later, my 27-year-old best friend committed suicide, too.” Madero says that she also tried to take her own life at one time. Madero believes a number of factors contribute to high suicide rates in Indian Country. “It’s really secluded, there’s nothing around,” she said. “Plus, there’s a lot of poverty, not enough jobs, alcoholism, drug abuse … many different ingredients add to the pot that causes so much depression.”
To help stem this tragic tide, Madero and Taran are teaming up to bring the Project Happiness curriculum to reservations throughout Indian country. They will kick off their collaboration on February 15 on the Quechan reservation in Winterhaven, California.
“I want us to co-create this so that it speaks to the youth. We will emphasize certain aspects, like emotional resilience … and the idea that everybody’s life has meaning and purpose,” explains the Project Happiness founder. “We’re providing books and customized tools to their educators to help curb this epidemic, give hope and create a model that can be used with other tribes.” Taran says she hopes to empower Native Americans and inspire them. “We want to give them back some self-esteem and some identity.”
Madero has high hopes that Project Happiness will be the antidote to the poison of depression among Native Americans. “I am trying to spread awareness into the community. I want to train different educators on every single reservation to take the Project Happiness tools and share them with the youth and the elders.”
Madero has been working overtime to create awareness for her cause. Last August, Native Cry produced a powerful Public Service Announcement that has called much-needed attention to the epidemic of suicides in Native American communities. She has also been campaigning diligently for the Native American Suicide Prevention Act that Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva will be re-introducing in the House on February 25 as a package with other Native American-themed bills. It was introduced before Congress last April by Rep. Joe Baca, but died out from a lack of support.
“My niece and my best friend . . . I feel their cries were not heard,” says Madero, who is thrilled with the progress she is making. “But now, I truly feel that the work I am doing is making their names and who they are never to be forgotten.”
Lynn Armitage, a freelance writer in Northern California, writes “Notes From A Single Parent” and “Spirit of Enterprise for Indian Country Today Media Network.