Senate explores Indian youth suicide

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WASHINGTON – The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held an oversight hearing March 25, titled, “The Preventable Epidemic: Youth Suicides and the Urgent Need for Mental Health Care Resources in Indian Country.”

Randy Grinnell, IHS deputy director, testified that the American Indian and Alaska Native suicide rate for a three-year period from 2002 – 2004 in the IHS service area was 1.7 times that of the all races rate for 2003.

“Suicide is the second leading cause of death (behind unintentional injuries) for Indian youth ages 15 – 24 residing in IHS service areas and is 3.5 times higher than the national average.”

Sen. Al Franken, D-N.M., said the rate is up to seven times higher in some areas of the country.

The statistics indicate that American Indian and Alaska Native young people aged 15 – 34 make up 64 percent of all suicides in Indian country.

Health educators have long said that Indian country needs more mental health support in order to address the issue. Funds are included in the recently passed Indian Health Care Improvement Act toward that end, but the general belief is that it will take time and steady focus to impede the trend.

Coloradas Mangas, a 15-year-old high school sophomore from the Mescalero Apache Reservation in Ruidoso, N.M., provided strong testimony at the hearing.

At one point, he was asked why he thought young Native Americans are killing themselves.

“Things go wrong that they can’t change,” Mangas said. “They don’t get shown the love they need. They say, ‘You don’t love me when I was here. Now you love me when I’m not here.’”

Mangas himself carried out a failed suicide attempt in the past. Part of his reason for testifying was to help other young people not be ashamed to reach out for help, he said.

“I come from a people whose pride runs deep, but I also understand that sometimes pride can keep us from asking for help.”

Several Indian health officials testified that there needs to be increased funding for Indian youth counseling programs, and a focus on expanding programs that work to reach more tribal youth.