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Natives on Bullying & Suicide: 'Coulda Drowned, But I Grabbed a Rope'

The rising teenage suicide rate (or attempted suicides) among any population is sorrowful. Multiple youth suicides send waves of hopelessness and despair throughout all communities in which they occur. In a recent article by the National Education Association, Bullying Emerges as a Contributing Factor: The Scourge of Suicides among American Indian and Alaska Native Youth, 2011 revels, “American Indian children and teenagers are committing suicide at more than three times the rate of the overall youth population in this country. Among American Indian and Alaska Native youth, suicide is the second leading cause of death behind accidental injuries.” Vulnerability factors include: high rates of poverty and unemployment, substance abuse, family breakdown, pressure to abandon their traditional culture, and a lack of culturally sensitive mental health care providers and resources to address their unique needs.

Additional causes are described as “stressful events” that can trigger a suicide, according to researchers and public health professionals. “One such stress event for American Indian and Alaska Native youth who have committed suicide is the loss of an adult who has been close to them—a parent, grandparent or some other family member—due to death, divorce or desertion.” Another major stress event is “the suicide of a friend or peer—hence the multiplier effect of suicide.” Another is persistent and pernicious bullying.

Other critical factors include “historical trauma,” psychological trauma occurring over generations that has negative and far-reaching effects on past, present and future generations. And in many cases, low self-esteem and poor school performance is perpetuated by the dominate narrative of perpetual progress offered by educators that place racial and ethnic minorities largely as incidental characters to America’s myth-building story. As a consequence, the realization for many non-Indian students is that Indians don’t matter. From the First Thanksgiving, Columbus’ “Raid on the New World” to the settling of America, the American Indian has suffered a long history of violence, oppression and marginalization. Such affects have created deep gaps in our socio-economic realities, and has paved the way for the continuous poisonous toad of racism against us, even in the classroom.

My 16-year-old daughter, recently spent 20 days in a mental health facility for cutting, depression and anxiety as a result of being bullied at school because she was viewed as being “different,” a young “mixed-race Indian woman determined to graduate high school and go on to be a cosmetologist.

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The vast majority of American Indian and Alaska Native students attend K-12 public schools. Educators are committed to the proposition that every student has the right to learn, grow and develop his or her full potential, regardless of one’s personal, sexual and social orientation, it is critical that we address the bullying issue. My daughter explains, “Coulda drowned, but I grabbed the rope.” She sought adult help before it was too late. She was one of the lucky ones, others may not be that fortunate.

Student-to-student bullying is not acceptable; and is a human rights issue. It violates a student’s basic human right to a quality education, and its impact on the bullied student can be severe, including increased absenteeism, lowered academic achievement, increased anxiety, loss of self-esteem and confidence, depression, deterioration of physical health, and suicidal thinking.

What can be done? School employees and school districts have a moral and legal obligation to put a stop to such harassment or bullying based on race (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Moreover, school administrators must not only discipline the perpetrators, but they and the other school employees also have a responsibility to take steps to create a school environment in which such discriminatory harassment and bullying does not recur. The Office for Civil Rights, United State Department of Education offers technical assistance to help schools achieve voluntary compliance with the civil rights laws and works with schools to develop creative approaches to preventing discrimination by bullying or harassment. Let’s stop bullying now.

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.