Youth Suicide in Indian Country

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Suicide is the second leading cause of death among American Indian youth. In some communities, the suicide rate is as high as ten times the rate of the general U.S. population, requiring immediate attention. Like many public health issues, suicide is complex and influenced by multiple factors, including parental conflict, academic problems, substance abuse, and socioeconomic status. Although limited research exists on protective factors for American Indians, studies have found that positive school experience, supportive tribal leaders, and commitment to cultural spirituality were protective against suicidal thoughts. [1]. While these factors provide a good starting point for program development, suicide prevention programs must be flexible to account for differences between tribes, such as social structure, gender roles and conceptualization of death. [1]

The Indian Health Service (IHS) is committed to improving the health of American Indians and Alaska Natives and recently launched a Suicide Prevention Website to provide culturally appropriate information about suicide prevention. Other organizations are also joining the fight, including the Center for Native American Youth. States have recognized the need to address youth suicide in Indian country and include tribes in their state suicide plans. Finally, many tribes have developed tribal programs aimed at reducing youth suicide rates within their communities.

Despite these efforts, more is needed. We need additional funding for American Indian youth suicide prevention programs. Early research shows that suicide prevention programs can be effective.  Now, we simply need the funding to implement these programs. It is a matter of life and death for our children, our communities, and our future.

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[1]  Balis, T. and Postolache, T. (2008).  Ethnic Differences in Adolescent Suicide in the United States.  International Journal of Child Health and Human Development, 1(3), 281-296.

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3 Responses to “Youth Suicide in Indian Country”

  1. friso vr Says:

    Ethnic groups such as Native Americans are a minority population with strong cultural and genetic characteristics that should be well documented and analyzed for targeted interventions to reduce health issues.
    The funding for this small group should be allocated and enforced. There are many subsidies and government tax incentives and havens for Native Americans that could be appropriated to these pressing health topics. The potential for a link with alcohol use and abuse as it relates to suicide might raise awareness for both health issues and increase funding.

  2. jaundnein Says:

    These are indeed disturbing findings, but not surprising given the disorientation and low level of life perspectives many of these young people have. The Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Study in Nepal has made a similar discovery: Suicide has been found to be the single leading cause of death among women of reproductive age (15-49 years) in the country. More studies are planned to study the underlying causes, but women are known to be disadvantaged in Nepali society.

  3. mduv1 Says:

    To address the problem of Native American teen suicide, suicidal ideation, and attempts, one must consider the entire ecological model. From the intrapersonal beliefs and attitudes about death and suicide in particular, social network and peer acceptance of suicide, depressed economic status of the community, inadequate mental health and organizational support, to policy gaps, the issues to address the problem are legion.

    However, there is hope. Note the links in the above blog: Montana notes a need for involvement of youth in the planning process regarding teenage suicide, the Mescalero Apache’s began an Honor Your Life program, and Senator Dorgan works with the Aspen Institute and policy changes to address this public health problem.

    Other mental health organizations, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, note that case management with adolescents has been shown to improve treatment adherence (1). American Indian Outreach materials are available (2). Many organizations are concerned, such as the National Institute of Mental Health (3).

    For the greatest chance of success for interventions with Native Americans, cultural beliefs must be understood, and social networks and the community involved in the solution. Tribal programs, if effective, may be a model to help determine priorities for policy goals and objectives, resource allocation, and strategies. One may envision a grassroots community coalition of diverse tribal leaders cooperating to pool ideas regarding possible proactive interventions to engage the Native American youth away from suicide and increase public support to improve mental health funding needed for this disenfranchised population.

    1. http://www.nami.org/Content/ContentGroups/Illnesses/Suicide_Teens.htm
    2. http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?section=Search&Template=Search/SearchDisplay.cfm
    3. http://www.teendepression.org/related/teen-suicide-statistics/

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