Help is Out There: Dramatic Increase in Indian Country Suicides

On March 4, 2009 the Senate Indian Affairs Committee met in Washington to discuss what experts and community leaders describe as “crisis levels of suicides in Indian country.”

The Committee looked at initiatives implemented in the past and discussed critical needs for developing resources to address suicides in total across Indian country. What years ago started as a point of concern has now evolved into an epidemic.

According to experts that testified to the Committee, American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest suicide rates nationwide. Native youth ages 15-24 have suicide rates more than three times higher than the national average and across the Great Plains, this rate is even higher. Sadly, this is a 70 percent higher rate of suicide than in the general population. One councilman of the South Dakota Rosebud Sioux Tribe testified that over the past several years in his tribe alone, the suicides and suicide attempts got so high that in 2007 his Tribal President declared a State of Emergency in order to draw attention and resources to the problem.

The general consensus between those who testified is that that there is a lack of mental health services and funding for reservation communities and that a systemic vision must be established so that leadership on reservations feels supported and assured that there is a concerted effort underway. This would include change in policy and, at the minimum, an investment on programming and services for reservations. Sadly, because health care rationing takes place on Indian reservations in America, 40 percent of Indian health care needs are not met. So what about the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie that requires the U.S. Government to provide health care to the Tribes. Why does it appear as though this is not happening? Perhaps it is time to revisit the treaty since it obligates the federal government to do more. In addition to lack of resources and program funding, other leaders testified that poverty also plays a big role and that there is a general lack of hope in some Indian communities.

Although decreasing Native suicide rates, which have reached epidemic proportions, will not be easy, the Committee may want to start by empowering Indian community leadership and funding important preventative programs with federal or state government financial support. That way elders, parents, teachers, and community leaders would have the resources to set up counseling and culturally healing programs and activities. The importance of the collaborative efforts Indian communities and the agencies that support must be strengthened.

Because the Committee opened the floor to discussion, they broke the silence. But listening to experts and leaders from the Indian community is only the first step; they must now make sure that they are doing everything they can to create holistic counseling programs, good jobs, improve education, increase health care and make housing possible throughout Indian Country. Perhaps this will restore hope to Indian communities and provide those who are struggling with the resources they need to get through their darkest days.