Labeled “a silent epidemic,” suicide is a leading cause of death for 15-to-24-year-old American Indians. The strongest risk factor for suicide is depression, which the World Health Organization ranks as the No. 1 disability in the world.
“American Indians and Alaska Natives die at higher rates than other Americans with mortality rates showing suicides running 73 percent higher in Indian Health Service areas,” according to Indian Health Service (IHS) statistics. And for each fatality, it’s estimated there are 10-to-25 non-fatal attempts to terminate one’s existence.
For all these reasons, IHS and co-sponsors Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Indian Education, and the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, gathered in Scottsdale, Arizona this week to sponsor an Action Summit for Suicide Prevention: “Partnering with Tribes to Protect the Circle of Life.” Turnout far exceeded expectations—as many as a thousand attendees filled all available seating in the auditorium.
“We’re committed to using a collaborative approach to this serious, heart-breaking problem in our communities,” Dr. Roubideaux told Indian Country Today Media Network (ICTMN). “No one agency can solve this alone, so we have reached out to try a more coordinated approach in partnership with tribes. This collaboration marks only the beginning of a larger long-term process.”
The gathering used the Surgeon General’s prevention strategy from 1999 as a launchpad. The Surgeon General's Office narrowed suicide prevention down to three categories—Awareness, Intervention and Methodology. This year’s session centered on Question, Persuade and Refer—three steps intended to save a life by recognizing warning signs of an impending suicide crisis.
“Ten regional sessions were held to gather contemporary input from tribal leaders and community members on what the issues were and their recommendations to solve the problems. By gathering this feedback, we were able to form an agenda that identified best practices and ensured the bringing together of multiple delivery systems to address those problems,” said Dr. Rose Weahkee (Navajo), IHS' behavioral health director in the Office of Clinical and Preventive Services. The 80-page agenda, prepared by a 43-member planning committee, featured almost as many topics and presenters as there were attendees.
The elaborate event culminated with the release of a new five-year National Suicide Prevention Strategic Plan to be used through 2015. “This is a national prevention initiative based on fostering collaborations across the entire Indian Health System including tribes, tribal organizations, urban Indian organizations and other key community resources like academic disciplines with expertise in the problem,” Dr. Roubideaux told conference delegates. “These assets will provide us with the tools we need to adapt the shared wisdom, consolidate our experiences, and target our efforts toward meeting the changing needs of our population.”
IHS has targeted five approaches for suicide prevention and intervention:
- Addressing the topic of suicide by utilizing community level cultural approaches
- Identifying and sharing information on the best and most-promising practices
- Improving access to behavioral health services
- Strengthening and enhancing IHS epidemiological capabilities
- Promoting collaboration between tribal and urban Indian communities with federal, state, national, and local community agencies
Among the listed goals and objectives in the new five-year plan is the development of a national Native American/Alaskan Native suicide prevention public awareness strategy with an annual Suicide Awareness Day in September and recruitment of youth, spiritual and cultural leaders to become members of the IHS Suicide Prevention Committee.
“Communities that have done these types of collaborations --- bringing youth, elders, and agencies together --- have been successful and I believe progress can be made by being persistent in our efforts,” said Dr. Weahkee.