Indigenous American Youth in Crisis

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15-to-24-year-olds after accidents and homicides.

In a report published by the CDC and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics in 2015, data shows that in the year of 2012-2013, males were more likely to die by suicide than females. When researchers broke the data down by racial and ethnic groups, they found that the overall suicide rate was higher for Indigenous American young adults than for other demographics.

The 2012-2013 suicide rate for Indigenous Americans was overall 22.5 deaths per 100,000, 9.9 deaths per 100,000 for females, and 34.3 deaths per 100,000 for women. The most common method of suicide was suffocation. The Indigenous American suicide rate is nearly double the national suicide rate in the United States.

In comparison, the national suicide rate among young adults aged 18-24 in 2012-2013 was overall 12.8 deaths per 100,000, 4.8 deaths per 100,000 for females, and 20.4 deaths per 100,000 for males.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the causes of suicide are often complex, and mental illness plays a role in 90 percent of the act. The conditions are often treatable. In the Indigenous American community, mental health resources are often in short supply and do not always reach the families who need it most. For instance, the Indian Health Services (IHS) department, which delivers care to 2.2 million Indigenous Americans, continues to be underfunded. The budget technically increased by 56 percent from 2006 to 2015 but in 2001 dollars, that’s an only an increase of 33 percent, the department addresses. The IHS per-person spending is about $3,000, while the general U.S. spends about $8,000 per person.

Furthermore, historical trauma, systemic racism, poverty, and addiction add to the crushing hopelessness in these communities and creates an atmosphere where suicide feels like the only option.

The poverty rate among the American Indigenous population in 2009 is 23.6%, and 32.4% of the population under-18 youth lives in low socioeconomic circumstances. An average American Indigenous household is $33,300 while the national average is $46,200.

These small communities also have a much higher risk for health related issues that include alcoholism, and incidence of diabetes and tuberculosis. As a group, they have the highest rate of domestic violence in the U.S. and Indigenous American youth are at double the risk for abuse and neglect.

There is a lack of awareness about Indigenous American youth, who many feel forgotten, and not a part of 21st century America. It doesn’t help that many of these young people observe other youth outside of their community attending college, moving to other states and starting companies, while at the reservation, there is little progress.

As a result of feeling left out, some Indigenous American youth can be attracted to the public display of mourning that follows a death, and when they hear about the method of suicide, they copy it.

Despite the influx of suicide, efforts are being made to combat some of the contributing factors to the act. These efforts include advocating for the power to persecute non-Indians on reservation grounds ( important for domestic violence crimes) and confronting acts such as bullying and sexual abuse.

As written in Time magazine, tribal leaders have started suicide prevention by focusing on “resilience, trauma-informed care, healing, and the reduction of systemic violence to provide supports” for their community. They have also begun working on a Tribal Behavioral Health Agenda that would have a national encompassing approach to address suicide and other behavioral issues in the Indigenous American community.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), states that there is a range of successful community-based initiatives to prevent suicide. For instance, the First Kids 1st Initiative uses youth voices to create community movements that transform into policy change and community action. At the United National Indian Tribal Youth Conference, 1,600 young people in attendance committed themselves to raise suicide prevention awareness by being part of the #IwillLive campaign.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts you can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273- TALK (8255). 

Here is an online resource to learn more about suicide prevention awareness in regards to Indigenous American communities. SAMHSA: Tribal Training and Technical Assistance Center

Photo Courtesy: Grand Canyon National Park Photostream via Flickr. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode