Suicide is epidemic for American Indian youth: What more
can be done?
Condensed by Native Village
A youth-suicide epidemic is sweeping Indian country.
Native American teens and young adults are killing themselves at
more than triple the rate of other young Americans.
In pockets of the U.S, Native
youth suicide rates are 9 - 19 times greater than other
youth -- and rising. From Arizona to Alaska, tribes are
declaring states of emergency and setting up
“It feels like wartime,”
said Diane Garreau, a child-welfare
official on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation
see one of our youngsters one day, then find out a couple of
days later she’s gone. Our children are self-destructing.”
The alarm is so great that the U.S. federal government gave
Native tribes 10 of only 23 grants awarded last year to prevent youth suicides.
Most are almost $500,000
per year for three years.
Former North Dakota senator, Byron Dorgan,
chaired the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs for
18 years. Dorgan
founder of the
Center for Native American Youth.
promotes Indian child health and emphasizes suicide
Dorgan says the Indian Health Service, which
serves the nation’s 566 tribes, is chronically underfunded.
"We need more mental-health services to save the lives of
our youngest First Americans,”
nonprofits may get two- or three-year grants to address an
issue that cannot possibly be resolved in that amount of
time. We fund programs, then let them fall off a cliff.
"The perception may be that tribes have a lot of gaming
funds, but that is simply not true for more than a few.”
Legacy of trauma
Suicide figures vary. The
most troubling numbers are in the Northern Plains, Alaska and parts of the Southwest.
kids hurt so much, they have to shut down the pain,”
said Garreau, who is Lakota.
“Many have decided they won’t
live that long anyway, which in their minds excuses
self-destructive behavior, like drinking—or suicide.”
In 2001, after a cluster of suicides, the
Apache Tribe (AZ) started a prevention program. It
mandated the reporting of all suicides and attempts on their reservation. They learned that, from 2001 - 2006,
tribal youth youth ended their lives at 13 times the national rate.
The trauma behind the numbers is excruciating.
“When my son died by suicide at age 23, I didn’t even know
how to think,”
said Barbara Jean Franks, a Tlingit who was living in
Juneau, Alaska, at the time.
“I couldn’t imagine that hope existed.”
The tragedies ripple through entire communities.
Reservations are essentially small towns where tribal
members are often related, Garreau said.
are numbed, overwhelmed. Sometimes they’ll say, I just can’t
go to another funeral.”
Native Suicide Rates
Males: 9 times greater
than all young U.S males
19 times greater
than all young U.S. females
(Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium)
Alex Crosby is a medical epidemiologist with the
center. Crosby's thinks suicide has become so common in some
communities that it's almost an acceptable solution for
“If people run into trouble—relationship problems, legal
problems—this compounds the underlying risk factors, and one
of the options is suicide.”
"Is it in our blood?"
“It crosses your mind,”
said Jake Martus, Yupik/Eskimo/Athabaskan. Martus, 26, is a patient advocate for the
Native Epidemiology Center. Suicide is so frequent among
his people, he has to ask,
“Is it in our blood?”
Martus’ father killed himself in jail after being arrested
for drunk driving. Behind his dad’s alcoholism were
overwhelming memories of sexual abuse by his village’s
Catholic priest. Such stories echo
throughout Indian country. Lawsuits against the
Catholic Church detail overwhelming abuse at the
notoriously violent boarding schools that Native children
were forced to attend until the 1970s.
The lasting effect of the abuse, the land, and the culture
is called historical trauma. Martus calls it
“They set us up to kill ourselves,"
"The point of all the policies was ‘take them out.’”
Adolescents may not grasp that shooting or hanging
themselves can have permanent results.
“Youth who survived suicide attempts would tell us they
just wanted a break from their problems, a little time off,”
said social worker Patricia Serna, who helped create a
tribal suicide-prevention program for a New Mexico tribe.
She explains that in a Iteen's brain, the areas important to
decision-making are not yet fully developed. Youth
might not foresee the consequences of their actions.
This is true for every teen -- not just Native.
Tradition as a life raft
Tradition is key, said Anderson Thomas,
Ramah Navajo. On
his reservation, it’s typically young men who
are dying by suicide, not young women.
“I’d say more than 90 percent of girls here go through their
traditional coming-of-age ceremony,”
he said. But for males, traditional male activities
like hunting have diminished, so the rituals related to it
have dropped off as well. But Navajo men and boys also need ceremonies, Thomas said.
“It was my tradition that brought me to safety,”
who eventually got a degree and now works on
behalf of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. “Now,
I can move forward. Instead of saying my son died by
suicide, I can say he gave me 23 years of his life.”
According to Crosby, tradition is a
that counters risk factors—even deeply embedded ones. For
indigenous people, tradition is distinctive and powerful. It
incorporates family and clan, reverence for elders and a
deeply-held spiritual life. These traditions and ties both
encourage and give Native youth a strong sense of value.
“You could define many things—a school camping trip, a
traditional dance group—as suicide prevention,”
said Zuni Pueblo’s Superintendent of Schools Hayes Lewis.
Lewis is co-creator of the
Zuni Life Skills Development curriculum.
Zuni Life is among the first suicide-prevention programs
designed for Native Americans. It was created after 13
youth living at Zuni committed suicide between 1980 -1987.
teaches coping skills like stress management, as well as
role-playing responses to suicide threats.
After Zuni adopted the curriculum in 1991, youth suicide
stopped almost immediately,
Fifteen years later, the school shelved the
program, and suicides crept back. The shocked community
asked Lewis to resume as superintendent and
re-establish the curriculum. Over the past two years, he’s
done just that, he said.
When the Zuni school system ended its program, the officials
there didn’t realize
“how fragile the peace was. Suicide
prevention and intervention require constant vigilance,”
Lewis testified to the
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs
State of Emergency for Native American
by Hans Steiner, Stanford; Kirti Saxena, U. of Texas;
Edwardo Duran, "Healing the Soul Wound"; Steve Trubow,
Artwork: Leanin' Tree Christmas Card
Native Village Home Page
Village © Gina Boltz
To receive email notices of Native Village updates,
please send your email address to:
To contact us, email
Thank you to ALL the wonderful individuals, friends,
organizations, groups, news services and websites who share or donate their research, work, time and
talents to make Native Village possible
In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed
without profit or payment for non-profit research, archival, news, and
educational purposes only.
NATIVE VILLAGE website was created for youth, educators, families, and friends
who wish to celebrate the rich, diverse cultures of The Americas' First Peoples.
We offer readers two monthly publications: NATIVE VILLAGE Youth and Education
News and NATIVE VILLAGE Opportunities and Websites. Each issue shares
today's happenings in Indian country. NATIVE VILLAGE also houses website
libraries and informational materials to enrich all lives on Turtle Island.
Unless otherwise noted, articles are written in full by the credited author at
the credited source link. We are responsible for format changes and additional
photos, art, and graphics which boost visual appeal and add dimension to
the reading experience. Pictures and graphics not appearing with the original
article are either credited on the page or by right-clicking the picture. Some
may be free or by sources unknown.
Please contact us with any copyright
corrections so we may properly credit the source.
We are not responsible for changes to outside websites and weblinks. Please
notify us if any problems arise.