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Spate of Youth Suicides Shake Pine Ridge Reservation

Five suicides, all youths between the ages of 12 and 15, in the past two months have shaken the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
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Five suicides in the past two months have shaken the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Since mid-December, five Oglala Sioux youths between the ages of 12 and 15 have committed suicide on this 3,500-square-mile reservation in South Dakota. That includes three deaths since January 31, and officials are reporting additional suicide attempts.

“Right now we’re just trying to get a handle on it,” said Angie Sam, director of the tribe’s Sweet Grass Suicide Prevention Program. “We’re working with families of those who completed suicide, or those who have attempted, or those who are exhibiting ideation. At this point, we’re responding very aggressively.”

Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory, a training outreach coordinator for Sweet Grass, said suicide often is an impulsive action or a “momentary solution.” DeCory, who has worked with youth in Pine Ridge for more than a decade, is reaching out to parents, grandparents and communities for help.

“The families are mourning and the kids are hurting,” she said. “The answer is within us. We’ve got to stop burying these kids.”

None of the recent suicides is believed to be alcohol- or drug-related, DeCory said. She points to other longstanding social issues that may be contributing factors—things like poverty, bullying or tenuous family relationships.

“Being a teenager is hard,” she said. “Being raised by your great-grandma because your parents aren’t around, that’s a hard life. You don’t stay young long on the reservation. You have to grow up pretty fast.”

Organizations like Sweet Grass are working to reach youths at risk of suicide and to educate families across the reservation.

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“We’re reaching out to kids as young as second grade,” DeCory said. “We’re knocking on doors the old-fashioned way and giving out pamphlets with resources and information. If we’re going to end this, we have to do it together.”

Allison Morrisette lost her 13-year-old cousin to suicide on February 9. A seventh-grader on the Pine Ridge reservation, the teen was a talented basketball player who enjoyed being with her family.

“Everyone remembers her as always smiling,” Morrisette said. “She was quiet around people she didn’t know, but around us she was happy and energetic.”

Believing the teen was bullied at school and on social media, the family contacted the FBI.

“We think there was cyber bullying,” Morrisette said. “It was really shocking. We never expected her to do this.”

Kyle Loven, chief division council for the Minneapolis office of the FBI, confirmed that multiple suicides have occurred on the reservation in recent months, but declined to comment about any ongoing investigations.

“Anytime there’s a death on the reservation, we are typically notified,” he said. “As far as if and when there’s an FBI investigation, that depends on the surrounding circumstances. I can say we have been and are in communication with tribal authorities.”

Sam is urging anyone who may be thinking about suicide to seek help. She also encourages everyone to watch for warning signs in others. These warning signs include talking about suicide, talking about feeling hopeless or being a burden, extreme moods swings, risky behavior or an increase in alcohol or drug use.

Need to talk? The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free resource available 24 hours a day at 800-273-TALK (8255).