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Montana Senate Hearing Addresses Rash of Fort Peck Suicides

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Prompted by an outbreak of youth suicides on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation last year, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing last night on suicide prevention, reported the Associated Press. More than 100 people attended the August 9 hearing at the Poplar High School auditorium in Montana, including some parents and relatives of suicide victims.

Six students from reservation schools in Poplar, Montana took their lives last year and nearly 20 attempted suicide. The reservation's Sioux and Assiniboine tribes have declared the situation an emergency—and it is on the rise, according to Indian Health Service statistics, reported the AP.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, presiding over the hearing, noted the youth suicide rate on the Fort Peck Reservation is 10 times the national average and unacceptable. "Recently when news reports were telling about celebrities and athletes in trouble, America's 24-hour news cycle forgot a big story here in Montana," Tester said, reported the AP.

Rose Weahkee, director of the Indian Health Service's Division of Behavioral Health, attributed the rising suicide rate in the past decade in part to reduced access to care due to the area's remote location. She also highlighted the difficulties recruiting and retaining providers.

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Aggravating the issue, the Fort Peck reservation is rattled with rampant substance abuse and suffers from low unemployment. Half of the reservation's children live below poverty level, according to tribal statistics, reported the AP.

Dick Manning with the National Native Children's Trauma Center with the University of Montana in Missoula recommended a prevention method. His agency has seen progress in Poplar through placing students identified as at-risk in a mentoring program. The result: the number of assaults against these 47 middle school students placed in the program last year was noticeably reduced, he said.

"It's a simple program that can be duplicated in other communities," Manning told the audience, reported the AP.