WASHINGTON - Suicide is the second leading cause of death among American
Indian youth aged 15 - 24, but that is no surprise to anyone who lives on a
reservation in the Great Plains.
What is surprising is that solutions to the problem continue to baffle
community members and experts alike. Any solution requires the backing of
community members, mental health professionals and now Congress.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., held a field hearing in Bismarck recently to
take testimony from community members of the Standing Rock Reservation,
located in North and South Dakota. He followed that hearing up with one
with the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, of which he is a member.
"We all wish we were not attending this hearing to discuss this subject.
Suicide has affected entire communities: families of suicide victims and
some children who are friends.
"One thing I remember talking to the victims' classmates is that they said
'so-and-so didn't want to die, he wanted some attention to problems he was
going through,'" Dorgan said.
During the field hearing, Dorgan said one woman tearfully testified that
she had to beg to find a car to give a young person a ride to a clinic.
Accessibility to mental health professionals is problematic on many
reservations, resources are finite and additional resources don't seem to
be set in future budgets or agendas.
"We have some serious issues we are facing. We must redo the Indian Health
Improvement Act and hope a piece of that legislation could apply to this.
"We must say to young people that they are not alone: we are here and want
to address this issue," Dorgan said.
The U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Richard Carmona, M.D., said that
strategies to reduce youth suicide are working nationwide, but not on
In the Great Plains, the suicide rate among teens on reservations is 10
times greater than that of the average national statistics. Every 45
seconds, someone exhibits suicidal behavior; and in Indian country, the
resources may not always be available to deal with that person.
Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain said reasons for
American Indian youths' higher suicide rate could be historical; the past
treatment of the American Indians may lead to despair, which could be the
only difference between inner-city suicides and those on reservations.
Inner-city youth suffer from hopelessness, poverty and oppression much the
same as American Indian youth.
Carmona agreed that there is marginalization and discrimination in Indian
country. Today the burden of centuries of problems are surfacing and if
they can be identified scientifically and taken to a higher level, programs
to combat suicide may lead to success, he said.
Practicing psychologist Dr. Joseph Stone, Blackfeet, said what is seen
today is historical trauma or post-colonial stress. The research is new, he
said, but it is beginning to occur. "When there is arousal it can't be
regulated; and if a parent is busy surviving, the child has a lack of
resilience to suicide and other mental disorders."
Stone recommended to the committee that it strongly look at designating
suicide a top priority of the IHS and establish a national center managed
by American Indian professionals: "Ensure adequate access to professionals,
use state and county gatekeepers, and change arrangements with governments
and funding for American Indian universities to educate more professionals
at double the rate it is now."
Collaborative efforts by many communities, governments, schools and
agencies that have responsibility for mental health care is necessary, he
When the health care workers are members of the community, there is no time
for them to be counselors; it is time for them to grieve, Walker said.
He said the issue of access to mental health care is of great importance
and that IHS should be funded at the requested level.
"The need has to be serviced; it is a treaty obligation and if it is not
served, the treaty has to be looked at. Wouldn't it be nice to encourage
agencies, housing and law enforcement to begin work on problems for quality
care?" asked Dr. Dale Walker.
He added that many states avoid the issue by asserting that it is a federal
problem, not theirs.
"When asked what is the most important thing in life, if the answer is not
'our children' it is wrong - it is about our children. In responding to the
needs of the children with the testimony today: we are going to get
something done," Dorgan said.
"Indian country lives in Third World conditions. These are our first
Americans; we must start with building blocks, and the first thing is to
reach out to children. We must find out how, in the long term, to save the
lives of the children of this country."