Give Them Hope! Suicide and Native American Indian Children

Losing a child through suicide is one of the most devastating experiences any parent can face.

For many native American Indian parents, it is often a harsh reality.  Between the ages of 15 to 24, the rate of suicides among native American youth is 3.5 times that of other American social groups and rising.  Some areas are affected more badly than others.  Suicide rates for native young males in Alaska are up to nine times that of the average young American male.  Among young females, it is a staggering 19 times.  One study carried out between 2001 and 2006 revealed the rate across all young native Americans to be 13 times that of the national average.

The Causes
Given the poor social and economic conditions found on many reservations, these soaring suicide numbers are unsurprising.  The grisly list includes:-

  • Extreme poverty
  • Hunger
  • Alcoholism
  • Domestic violence
  • Substance abuse
  • High levels of diabetes

In addition to these extreme circumstances, unemployment levels have reached 80% on some reservations while bullying and peer pressure are often rife.

There is a further element underpinning this disturbing trend among young native Americans – referred to as historical trauma, brought about by the loss of their traditions, culture, language and land.

It is believed that a greater sense of tradition could play an influential role in reducing the risk of suicide as it encompasses family and clan relationships, a deeply held respect for elders and a marked emphasis on the spiritual life.  Repeated studies by both American and Canadian scientists suggest that enabling the native American youth to feel valued through tradition will simultaneously enable them to seek the help they so desperately need.

The Response
In response to this crisis, the Indian Health Services (IHS) has worked with the native tribes to declare states of emergency and establish crisis intervention teams.  The federal government is also working to resolve the problems, with 10 tribes being given youth suicide prevention grants amounting to almost $0.5m per year over a three year period.

The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also encourages tribes to apply for youth suicide prevention funds. It also offers technical assistance and a prevention guide through Native Aspirations, a national program which provides training and assistance to prevent youth suicide, violence and bullying.

For some, this simply isn’t enough to combat the problem.

Byron Dorgan, the former senator of North Dakota, founded the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY) in 2011 to promote American Indian child health. He believes the IHS is ‘chronically underfunded’.  Dorgan speaks from experience; he was Chair of the Senate’s Committee on Indian Affairs for a four year period.  The CNAY focuses in particular on suicide prevention

As the CNAY continues to campaign and work towards a long-term solution to this tragic issue, parents, teachers and peers are urged to watch closely for signs of risk factors, including depression, a family history of abuse or violence, a recent loss such as the break-up of a relationship, illness and previous suicide attempts.

Tragically, as suicide is so common, it can occasionally be seen as an acceptable solution when life simply gets too much.  This is what the CNAY aims to eradicate – and in so doing give young native American Indians the opportunities and hope they desperately need.

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