Members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs expressed frustration during its June 24 oversight hearing “Demanding Results to End Native Youth Suicide.” Committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyoming noted that the committee has held six hearings over the past 10 years on an issue that has been at the forefront of needs in Indian country for over four decades.
“Native youth suicide isn’t a new issue. When are we going to see results?” he asked witness Indian Health Service Acting Director Robert G. McSwain, North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians of California. McSwain cited the Zero Suicide Initiative the agency plans to launch this year.
Intended to coordinate care for suicidal and at-risk individuals, the initiative will also gather information to provide baseline data on youth suicide, as will the upcoming evaluation of the Methamphetamine and Suicide Prevention Initiative, which ends this year.
However, tribal leaders stressed that the need for help on the ground is urgent. In written testimony, John Yellowbird Steele, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said that since December the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota has lost 11 young people to suicide, and at least 176 have attempted suicide in that time period. “We simply cannot bear to lose any more of our children,” he said.
He said children on the reservation suffer from chronic poverty and a sense of hopelessness. Unemployment, overcrowded housing, substandard or unavailable health care, alcoholism and drug abuse, sexual and mental abuse, poor access to food and heat, crumbling schools, inadequate access to counseling or mental health resources, and violence against women and children, including that experienced off-reservation by children who were insulted and assaulted when they were taken to a hockey game as a reward for academic achievement, were long-standing systemic problems that led children to despair. “Our children [believe] they are destined to suffer the same history and injustices our ancestors suffered,” Steele said.
Long-standing problems require long-term solutions. Oglala Sioux Tribal Council Member Collins “C.J.” Clifford, who presented testimony for Steele, who was ill on the day of the hearing, called on the federal government to fully fund needs in Indian country. Job creation and economic self-sufficiency are critical to changing hopelessness and poverty, he told the committee.
Short-term crises also need long-term solutions, said Darrell G. Seki Sr., chairman of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, who called on Congress to end sequestration in Indian country and to provide long-term funding for suicide prevention initiatives, such as providing an adequate number of counselors in the schools.
When U.S. Department of Education SERV funds were provided to Red Lake after a school shooting 10 years ago, he said, the tribe learned two things: “School counselors can make a huge difference, but only if they are financially sustained for several years.”
For the past three years, sequestration has taken “$1.5 million each year from Red Lake’s BIA and IHS based programs and additional amounts from formula-based programs. This has made it very difficult for us to provide any sustained assistance to combat youth suicide,” Seki testified. The tribe has had to cut the number of school counselors from eight to five and fire half of its school-based social workers.
Grants, he said, “are very difficult to apply for and to manage, and they don’t last. Sustained funding is our only hope to make a difference.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. in her opening remarks said that we need to find and fund youth suicide prevention programs that work. More funding and sustained rather than grant funding is crucial, but some programs that work in Indian country have already been identified.
For example, witness Teresa D. LaFromboise, professor of Psychological and Developmental Sciences at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, cited the American Indian Life Skills Development Curriculum of problem-based lessons aimed at increasing social emotional competence and reducing the risk of suicide among American Indian adolescents, which grew out of a program developed at Stanford at the request of the Zuni Tribe in the late 1980s.
Hayes A. Lewis, Zuni, then director for the Center for Lifelong Education at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, testified at a 2009 SCIA hearing on youth suicide, “When we had a viable prevention and intervention plan and program in place – the suicides stopped. A long-term historical trend had been broken… The strength and viability of the Zuni Life Skills Development Program is evident in the longevity of the impacts in the Zuni community and a track record of over 15 years where there were no youth suicides in Zuni.” When the program was abandoned because people believed the problem had been solved, the suicides started again, he said.
A formal evaluation of the program “demonstrated the following effects: less suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, less hopelessness, greater self-efficacy to manage anger, and greater effectiveness in helping a suicidal friend solve problems and go for help among participants in the Zuni Life Skills treatment group as compared to those in the no-treatment comparison group,” said LaFromboise. The AILS program is available to any tribe or community that is searching for adolescent suicide prevention and life empowerment programs, she added.
LaFromboise named four other programs that have had proven positive results, among them the Coping and Support Training (CAST) program, which “focuses on mood management and school performance and emphasizes decreased involvement with illicit substances,” and the Good Behavior Game, which teaches elementary kids self-regulation skills with positive results that last into their high school years. By contrast, she said she has found “that most individually focused ‘off the shelf interventions’ do not address key perceived contributions to AI/AN suicide such as historical oppression, intergenerational trauma, prejudice and discrimination and other forms of collective disempowerment.”
Heitkamp said in her opening remarks, “Once again here we are talking about situations that should shock the nation’s conscience but somehow never seem to filter out of this hearing room.”
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said near the end of the hearing, “We hear this testimony, but our other colleagues in the Senate don’t hear this. Our job on this committee is to fight for you. We have responsibilities here. It’s our responsibility to be funding the things that we know work. I apologize that we haven’t been doing enough for your kids and for you.”