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Suicide on reservations; Community members speak out

BISMARK, N.D. - At a recent field hearing in Bismarck, Sen. Byron Dorgan,
D-N.D., heard testimony from community members about the prevalence of
suicide among youth on reservations in the Great Plains.

Twila Rough Surface, Standing Rock, testified that few schools on her
reservation have suicide prevention programs and that programs dealing with
mental health are non-existent.

"Confusion and depression from schools and communities can overwhelm young
people," she said.

"Access to transportation and telephones is a necessity, but it is not a
luxury many of our people have."

Rough Surface said that one psychologist has the responsibility of serving
3,000 cases on the Standing Rock Reservation. Two other people with
bachelor's degrees are not trained to do assessments, and there is no
adequate clinical care for mental health.

"It's so hard for our tribe to get resources."

Community-based, grassroots efforts to educate and prevent suicide are part
of the answer, as many testified, but resources from local, state and
federal governments are needed as well.

The IHS can provide for 45 percent of the mental health care needed - but
the burning question remains where the other 55 percent will come from.

Dr. Dale Walker, director of One Sky Center, did some evaluations on
Standing Rock and found that 40 percent of all youth there - 300 children -
had talked about suicide in their lives.

Julie Garreau, director of The Main on the Cheyenne River Reservation, said
her organization has had some impact on suicide rates because of the
attention to youth concerns and programs within the youth project that
bring community members together.

"We had 17 suicides on the Cheyenne River; it is all very personal. We know
entire families: they are our nieces and nephews. It is an indictment
against all of us when we lose a child to suicide, and it doesn't have to
be that way," she said.

Garreau heads an organization that is in the process of constructing a teen
center with programs requested by the teens.

"The youth project is an inspiring story to tell. We believe the youth
project is an example of what grassroots [efforts] can do for a community,"
Garreau said.

"Historically we were told what to wear, eat and how to think, but today
the reservation may be our salvation. It is about people taking care of
themselves, the story of a small group of people doing everything
possible," she said.

Reducing suicides among teens will require more than just a federal budget
increase or a grassroots effort, more than additional mental health care
professionals or school awareness classes. It may take all of those
elements working together, and more.

"The Indian Health Service tried to look at the need in all areas and it is
only able to provide 45 percent of the services. That really tells the
problem," Walker said.

On Standing Rock alone, when counselors are told that a student has a
problem there are only two people to deal with the problems and a
four-month waiting list. Walker said the professionals are doing an
excellent job, but there are too few of them.

Dorgan said some children are sent to mental health units in hospitals some
70 or 80 miles from home, spend a few days, and come home with medication.

Rough Surface said there is a lack of support services for family members.
She said accessing services requires at least a 75-mile drive; and to
compound the problem, there is an absence of on-call mental health
professionals while a lot of problems occur after working hours.