A youth-suicide epidemic is sweeping Indian country, with Native American teens and young adults killing themselves at more than triple the rate of other young Americans, according to federal government figures.
In pockets of the United States, suicide among Native American youth is 9 to 19 times as frequent as among other youths, and rising. From Arizona to Alaska, tribes are declaring states of emergency and setting up crisis-intervention teams.
“It feels like wartime,” said Diane Garreau, a child-welfare official on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, in South Dakota. “I’ll see one of our youngsters one day, then find out a couple of days later she’s gone. Our children are self-destructing.”
So dire is the alarm that of 23 grants the U.S. federal government awarded nationally to prevent youth suicides in September, 10 went to Native American tribes or organizations, with most of them receiving nearly $500,000 per year for three years.
A former Democratic senator from North Dakota, Byron Dorgan, who chaired the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs for 18 years, called those efforts good but insufficient. Dorgan is founder of the Center for Native American Youth, which promotes Indian child health and emphasizes suicide prevention. He describes the Indian Health Service, which serves the nation’s 566 tribes, as chronically underfunded.
“We need more mental-health services to save the lives of our youngest First Americans,” Dorgan said. “Tribes and 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,” Dorgan said.
The suicide risk factors for Native youth are well known and widely reported. In their homes and communities, many Native youngsters face extreme poverty, hunger, alcoholism, substance abuse and family violence. Diabetes rates are sky high, and untreated mental illnesses such as depression are common. Unemployment tops 80 percent on some reservations, so there are few jobs—even part-time or after-school ones. Bullying and peer pressure pile on more trauma during the vulnerable teen years.
Native youngsters are particularly affected by community-wide grief stemming from the loss of land, language and more, researchers reported in 2011. As many as 20 percent of adolescents said they thought daily about certain sorrows—even more frequently than adults in some cases, the researchers found.
“Our 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.”
“It crosses your mind,” said Jake Martus, whose Yupik/Eskimo/Athabaskan father was born in a tiny, remote village on the Yukon River. “I’ve never acted on suicidal thoughts, but they’ve been there my entire life. It’s sad, it’s shocking, but in our communities it’s also somehow normal.”
Martus, who is 26 and a patient advocate for the Alaska Native Epidemiology Center, said 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, Martus said. Similar stories echo throughout Indian country, where lawsuits against the Catholic Church have detailed sexual, physical, and emotional abuse by clerics in parishes or on staff at the notoriously violent boarding schools that Native children were forced to attend until the 1970s.
Incredible as it may sound to adults, adolescents may not fully understand that shooting or hanging themselves can have permanent results, said social worker Patricia Serna, who helped develop a nationally recognized suicide-prevention program for a New Mexico tribe. “Youth who survived suicide attempts would tell us they just wanted a break from their problems, a little time off.” She explains that important decision-making parts of the brain are not fully developed in adolescents—of all population groups, not just Native youngsters. As a result, they may not foresee the consequences of their actions.