May 12, 2016

Native Americans Facing Highest Suicide Rates

Eliza Racine

Rates of suicide among Native Americans are the highest compared to other groups, and they keep increasing over the years. This is especially true among Native American youth, who are three and a half times more likely to commit suicide compared to other groups, according to a Indian Health Service study in 2012. This crisis is long overdue for some serious aid.

Rising suicide rates led to the Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation declaring a state of emergency last year, after 14 youth suicides between August 2014 and April 2015 scarred the community.

Native Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 have the highest suicide rates compared to other groups, according to the CDC. A study of suicide rates from 1999 to 2014 revealed that Native Americans have the largest suicide rate increase among all groups, and that national suicide rates are the highest in thirty years. The study showed a 38 percent increase among Native American men, and a 89 percent increase among Native American women.

Native American youth are also twice as likely to be exposed to domestic violence, sexual abuse, substance abuse, and poverty compared to other groups. With unemployment rates at more than 70 percent, poverty rates at more than 50 percent, and high school graduation rates at 67 percent on the reservations, “[Native] children carry the outlook that things may not get better for them,” said C.J. Clifford, a tribal leader from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in an interview with the Huffington Post.

These factors lead youth to develop post-traumatic stress disorder which, according to Theresa M. Pouley, the chief judge of the Tulalip Tribal Court in Washington state, is at a similar level to that of soldiers who returned from service in Afghanistan.

Canada is also grappling with high rates of suicide among First Nations people, where last month the Attawapiskat First Nation community declared a state of emergency after eleven people attempted suicide in one night. The community faces major issues of poverty and violence, and is more than 300 miles from the nearest city, which limits access to mental health care.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to the Attawapiskat community’s declaration of emergency by proposing a $8 billion dollar budget in the coming years to improve healthcare and infrastructure in the First Nation communities. The United States must follow in Canada’s footsteps. This issue will not mend itself, and it is our nation’s responsibility to address this tragedy plaguing the communities that we have time and again abused.

In 2012, the U.S federal government began a round of 23 youth-suicide prevention grants which totalled $500,000 per year for three years. However, only 43 of the 566 federally recognized tribes received these grants, and given that these suicide rates are only increasing, it’s not sufficient funding to heal more than a century’s worth of damage. Native American leaders like Clifford are still asking Congress for more aid to adequately provide health care and school counselors to help these children and prevent suicide.

It is disconcerting how little attention the high rates of suicide are receiving. This is a national crisis and must be addressed immediately, the epidemic of children taking their lives is unacceptable and must be investigated. Long-term aid fairly distributed among all the tribes is one key way to help decrease the rates of suicide. Native Americans must receive better education, healthcare and housing, otherwise, poverty, depression, and a feeling of hopelessness will continue to fester within the younger generations.