BISMARCK, N.D. - It is no secret that the suicide rate among young people
on American Indian reservations is exceedingly higher than the national
average, and there are no national plans designed to address the problem.
Communities and tribes have struggled to deal with the issue and now the
U.S. Senate is getting involved.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on
Indian Affairs, said he recognized there was a major problem and returned
to his home state to hear firsthand the pain, frustrations and hope of
community members, professionals and young adults.
"The purpose was to provide a focus on the issue and develop strategies of
"I requested the hearing because of a cluster of suicides on the Standing
Rock Reservation and what is happening on the northern Great Plains with a
higher rate of teen suicide," Dorgan said.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young American Indians
aged 15 - 34 and is the eighth leading cause of death among all age groups
in Indian country, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.
In 2004, 10 young adults and youth succeeded with their suicide attempts on
the Standing Rock Reservation, which is located in both North and South
Dakota. The suicide rate across the nation in Indian country is said to be,
by some estimates, more than 250 percent higher than that of all ethnic
groups across the country combined.
These grim statistics prompted Dorgan to act. This is the first hearing the
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has held on this issue. A second hearing
is scheduled for June 15 and the entire committee, national organizations
and tribes will be invited.
The room was crowded with young people, parents, college students and state
and federal agency officials. Dorgan and director of IHS Dr. Charles Grim
both said the hearing was excellent.
"There are far too many children taking their lives and attempting suicide,
and we can no longer ignore the issues," Dorgan said.
The hearings will attempt to identify the causes behind suicide and find
methods to help young people deal with the problems, which might mean an
increase in resources, both human and financial, Dorgan said.
"There is no short and simple answer, and there may be no simple solution,"
High school students from Fort Yates Community School told Dorgan that
stress, drugs and alcohol played a part in the suicides. The students also
said there was very little to do on the reservations and no place that is
safe to hang out.
Tight financial resources sometimes prevent the construction or remodeling
of facilities that could be used for safe houses or social activity
"I don't know if I heard anything new, but from hearing from different
grades of youth they said over and over they needed something to do after
hours; many communities don't have places to go," Grim said.
For every person asked, there is a reason for the high rate of suicide on
the reservation. The most commonly listed problems are drugs and alcohol.
High unemployment and fear of the future are also frequent reasons.
Safe housing for young people in crisis and more mental health workers were
requests from some young people. Mental health workers at times must travel
great distances between communities on some reservations on the Great
Grim said it was not just substance abuse or depression, but the entire
community. A culture outside the Lakota culture exists that may lead to the
hopelessness felt by many of the young people.
Grim said the IHS was looking at a number of ways to deal with suicide
including teaching non-mental health providers to recognize the symptoms of
someone who might be considering suicide.
"Many times when somebody is going to commit suicide they don't go to a
mental health office, but they may give signs to others. We want to make
more people aware of the issue and help to talk about it and get it into
the open," Grim said.
Not all suicides will be detected and stopped, but if signs are detected a
community may be able to stop the cluster effect, Grim said.
Solving these problems will not be easy. There are not enough mental health
workers or counselors to go around throughout Indian country. Grim said
that when an incident occurs, the IHS is ready to send in counselors to
help mitigate a possible contagious suicidal problem.
Statistics show that at least one-half of youth suicide victims had never
seen a counselor or mental health professional. Dorgan said more resources
were needed to address that issue, but there was no plan in place to solve
it in the near future. He said twice the amount of much money is spent on
federal prisoners than is spent in Indian country.
"It's too early to judge options; we are desperately short of resources on
the reservations dealing with mental health issues, mental health
professionals and psychiatrists," Dorgan said.
Reasons for youth suicide may not be easy to pigeonhole. According to the
CDC, young adults who commit or attempt suicide are less likely to be
clinically depressed or to have typical mental health disorders. Research
is now underway to determine other risk factors and to seek out methods of
Most suicides in Indian country can be related to impulse behavior, but
underlying that behavior are other factors that trigger the response.
"There is probably a lot of undiagnosed depression in our country and it is
no different in Indian country. Depression can make chronic disease worse,
and alcohol and drugs are closely tied. Someone may feel isolated from the
community, they have a broken relationship, whether a parent [or] romantic,
and they may feel alone and they have depression too; then if the community
has been touched with suicide, the impulsive behavior happens," Grim said.
Suicide rates on reservations and throughout the nation more than doubled
in the period from 1950 - 1990. One factor may be the media and the
frequency of reported suicides that may lead to contagious behavior,
especially among young people, a CDC report stated.
Data from the 1972 - '74 period, compared with 1999 - 2001, show that
suicide rates in Indian country dropped by 18.3 percent, according to IHS
data. The number of suicide deaths from 1996-1998, compared with 1999 -
2001, dropped 5.6 percent.
Even though some data show a reduction in suicide rates, Indian country
suffers from suicide attempts at a rate of 250 percent to 350 percent
higher than the rest of the nation, according to data from various