Franklin James Cook

Senate Hearing Looks at Suicide Epidemic among Native Youth

In Advocacy, Prevention on March 9, 2009 at 10:29 pm
Dana Jetty of the Dakota Nation testifies during a Congressional Hearing. (Senate Indian Affairs Committee photo)

Dana Jetty of the Dakota Nation testifies during a Congressional Hearing. (Senate Indian Affairs Committee photo)

ORIGINAL ARTICLE — Reporter Shelley Bluejay Pierce, writing in Native American Times, distilled the testimony of a recent Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Hearing down to its essence in the voice of Dana Jetty, a 16-year-old high school student and member of Spirit Lake Dakotah Nation in North Dakota, whose sister died of suicide just last November.

“I ask that you support suicide prevention programs in our tribal communities, and I ask that when you have your discussions on the issue of suicide, you remember my sister. She was 14-years-old. She was a beautiful, outgoing teenager with her whole life ahead of her. She was my sister, and she is what suicide looks like in Indian Country.”

The article captures the sense that there is an epidemic of suicide among Native American youth and young adults.

Native youth ages 15-24 have suicide rates more than three times higher than the national average. Across the Great Plains, this rate is even higher.

“Over the past several years in the Rosebud Sioux Tribe alone, we have witnessed dozens of suicides and hundreds of documented suicide attempts. The situation became so bad that in 2007, our Tribal President declared a State of Emergency in order to draw attention and resources to the problem,” explained [Robert] Moore, [Tribal Councilman for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota].

During the Hearing, Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, who chairs the committee, spoke of the historical context for the situation.

“We need to go back and read the treaties that signed the federal government up for its obligations. Right now, health care rationing takes place on every Indian reservation in America. That is shameful.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose father died of suicide, attended the hearing and reminded everyone of the stigma over suicide.

”It’s important to break the silence about suicide, too often a taboo subject, and to talk openly about it.”

An article in the Albuquerque Journal notes that some funding to address the problem might be forthcoming.

The 2010 budget blueprint unveiled by President Barack Obama on Thursday contained $4 billion for Bureau of Indian Affairs, up $600 million from current year funding. Some of that money could be used on suicide prevention programs, committee members suggested.

SPNAC readers can view a webcast of the complete Senate Hearing, and transcripts of the testimony are also available.

[Editor’s note: In my home state of South Dakota, in fact, Native Americans age 15-24 have a suicide rate of 52 per 100,000, while the rate for people in that age group nationwide is about 10 suicides per 100,000. Keeping in mind that approximations are being used, a more meaningful comparison–to bring home the extent of the epidemic in Indian Country–might be to estimate how many 15- to 24-year-olds would be dying by suicide in, for instance, Boston (pop. 600,000) if the suicide rate there were 52/100K: It would be 312 suicides per year among youth and young adults, compared to the approximately 36 annual suicides per year there now (based on Massachusetts’s suicide rate for ages 15-24, which is about 6/100K). One wonders if a young person were dying by suicide almost every day in Boston if there wouldn’t be more than a Congressional Oversight Hearing and a stray newspaper article or two shedding light on the problem. (Data are for 2001-2005. The data source is WISQARS: Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System).]

[The abridged URL for this post is  http://tinyurl.com/EpidemicNative .]

[Related SPNAC post: “Youth Suicide among Native Americans Linked to Colonialism” ]

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