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$16M awarded to tribal youth suicide and early intervention programs

ROCKVILLE, Md. – If there is any doubt that historical trauma aided and abetted by intransigent poverty reverberates through the years to destroy hope, consider the numbers of Native youth who try or succeed in ending their own lives.

In the past few years, for example, the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota was struck by a wave of young people’s suicides and scores of attempted suicides that spread through the community like a flu epidemic.

This fall, Rosebud and 11 other Native communities will share $16 million to support suicide prevention projects and early intervention programs.

The grants are awarded by SAMHSA – the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The grant program is authorized by the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, a program funded each year since 2005 to commemorate the suicide death of Garrett Lee Smith, the son of U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon and his wife, Sharon Smith.

Garrett Lee Smith killed himself one day before his 22nd birthday in 2003 in his apartment in Utah, where he attended college. The couple turned their grief over their son’s death to a campaign to prevent other youth suicides.

“If Garrett’s tragedy has any meaning, it will be because we prevent other kids from a similar fate,” Gordon Smith told a Senate subcommittee in March of that year when testifying in support of the law, which was enacted in October 2004.

This year’s grants were announced at the Interdepartmental Tribal Justice, Safety and Wellness: Government-to-Government Consultation, Training and Technical Assistance session in Billings, Mont., in late August.

American Indian and Alaska Native youth age 15 – 24 are committing suicide at a rate more than three times the national average of 13 per 100,000 people for their age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicides in Indian country often occur in clusters, with one suicide leading to another. For Native youth in that age group, suicide has become the second leading cause of death after accidents and the third leading cause of death for youth age 10 – 14 after accidents, according to the CDC.

The New York Times reported last year that in the Great Plains, the suicide rate among Indian youth is the worst: 10 times the national average.

Tribal leaders can use the Garrett Lee Smith grants in the same way that the Smith family drew on their private tragedy for public good, SAMHSA’s Cynthia Hansen told Indian Country Today.

“I think it’s something that so many leaders in Indian country can resonate with,” she said. “The loss of a child can stress out their leadership, but it can also provide opportunities for programming and action in the midst of the tragedy.”

The grants began in 2005. Congress appropriates money specifically for the program.

This year’s grants will be used for both new and existing programs.

“Each application is different. One of the programs – the Native American Rehabilitation Association in Portland, Ore. – was awarded the first grant in 2005. Some of this year’s awardees have new programs and some have existing programs they want to build upon, or they had funding that’s now subsided and now with this grant can build on the past,” Hansen said.

The program has grown each year to include more Native communities. From its modest beginning – a single grant to a Native community in 2005 – the program now includes 18 communities.

The $16 million in total grants will be disbursed over three years. First-year grants are:

*$500,000 to the Native American Rehabilitation Association to expand and strengthen its Native Youth Suicide Prevention Project.

*$477,570 to the Rosebud Sioux Reservation to establish the Wiconi Wakan Health and Healing Center, a place to implement its Tribal Youth Suicide Prevention and Early intervention Project Plan.

*$496,889 to Gila River Behavioral Health Authority Youth Suicide Prevention Project at the Gila River Indian community in Arizona.

*$500,000 to the Omaha Nation Community Response Team – Project Hope in Nebraska to develop and implement a tribal youth suicide initiative grounded in strong partnerships and collaborations.

*$432,282 to the Mescalero Apache School Youth Suicide Prevention and Early Intervention initiative in New Mexico to implement and evaluate a comprehensive early intervention and suicide prevention model.

*$166,667 to the Circle of Trust Youth Suicide Prevention program at the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Nation in Montana to implement a prevention project that will include both CSKT members and nonmembers.

*$500,000 to the Preserving Life: Nevada Tribal Youth Suicide Prevention Initiative of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada to support, expand and enhance its suicide prevention efforts in Nevada communities in the areas of awareness, intervention and methodology.

*$450,000 to the Youth Suicide Prevention program of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in South Dakota to meet the objectives of its prevention plan.

*$500,000 to the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota to develop and implement a comprehensive and sustainable prevention program.

*$485,857 to Wiconi Ohitika Project at the Cankdeska Cikana Community College in North Dakota to provide suicide prevention services for the Spirit Lake Nation.

*$500,000 to the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan for its Sault Tribe Alive Youth project to develop a broad-based, culturally competent suicide prevention and early intervention program with tribal and nontribal stakeholders.

*$500,000 to the Bering Strait Suicide Prevention Program in Alaska to assist villages in developing prevention strategies through capacity building, education, training, and strong interdisciplinary collaboration and elder guidance.

The grants are awarded on a competitive basis. Applications and more information are available at