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Health
Senate committee plans hearing on Indian suicides


The Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold a hearing this summer to examine extremely high rates of suicide among Native youth.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice-chairman of the committee, said youth suicide rates on reservations have reached "epidemic levels." He cited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which has seen 10 suicides since 2004, including two earlier this month. The nearby Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has seen 24 young people have killed themselves in three last three years.

Similar stories can be found elsewhere in Indian Country, from the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona to the Pueblos of New Mexico. "We need to address the root causes, the assistance that's available to troubled teens, and the funding and human resources that are needed to reverse this devastating trend," Dorgan said in announcing the hearing, which he called a first in the Senate.

It has been known for years that American Indian and Alaska Native youth have the highest rates of suicide in the nation. According to government studies, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Native youth ages 15-24. Young Indian males and young Alaska Native males are particularly vulnerable.

"While the Indian Health Service has reported progress, the mortality rates among Native Americans from causes as diverse as diabetes, tuberculosis, certain types of cancer, and suicide, remain shockingly above the national average and unacceptably high," said Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the Senate committee, at an April 13 oversight hearing on Indian health.

The recent tragedy at the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota, where a 16-year-old student killed nine people before taking his life, has renewed focus on the issue. According to a state survey of public school students, 43 percent of boys and 82 percent of girls at Red Lake thought about killing themselves, rates far above the state average.

"Just a few weeks ago, we were once again tragically reminded that one's health involves much more than physical health -- it's also mental health," said Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) at the oversight hearing. "I hope that we can do much more than we are doing right now."

Tribal and Indian leaders say the attention is long overdue. Pointing to high rates of poverty and unemployment, and a lack of opportunities on reservations, they have sought increased resources for health care services and for programs that target Indian youth.

"The Red Lake tragedy should serve as a decisive indicator, like the canary in the mine shaft, that the health care crisis in Indian Country is real, tangible and, left unanswered, capable of tragedy," said Sally Smith, the chairwoman of the National Indian Health Board.

According to A. Kathryn Power, the director of the Center for Mental Health at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Native youth are at heightened risk of suicide due to these and other factors because they can contribute to depression and can lead to substance abuse. Studies show that Native youth use more likely to use illicit drugs than any other racial or ethnic group in the country.

"For American Indian and Alaska Natives," Power told the committee, "depression and substance abuse are the most common risk factors for completed suicide."

A date for the hearing on suicide has not been announced but Dorgan said it would occur in June. He also plans on putting together a field hearing on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which covers North and South Dakota, to gather more information. A witness from the reservation will be invited to testify at the June hearing.