We R Native launched the #weneedyouhere campaign to prevent youth suicide. Photo from We R Native / Facebook
Health | National

Report shows dramatic increase in suicide rates in Indian Country

Indian Country has seen a dramatic increase in suicide rates in the last 15 years, according to data released on Friday.

The suicide rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives has always been abnormally high. But a study from the National Center for Health Statistics shows how acute the crisis has become since 1999.

According to the report, the suicide rate among American Indian and Alaska Native women that year was 4.6 per 100,000 people. In 2014, it jumped to 8.7 per 100,000 people. That represented an 89 percent increase, the largest increase among all racial and ethnic groups in the United States.

American Indian and Alaska Native men remain afflicted at even higher rates, the report said. In 2014, their suicide rate was 27.4 per 100,000, up from 19.8 in 1999. That represented a rate increase of 38 percent in those years.

Youth participate in a healing camp that was organized to address suicide on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo by Cindy Giago

Despite the alarming rates, the center warns that the problem may be even worse than the data indicates.

"Deaths for the American Indian or Alaska Native population may be underreported by 30 percent," the report stated. That would be the highest underreported rate among all racial and ethnic groups.

Overall, the suicide rate in the nation was 13.0 per 100,000 people in 2014. That's an increase of 24 percent from the rate of 10.5 per 100,000 in 1999.

"Suicide is an important public health issue involving psychological, biological, and societal factors," the center said in a data brief. "After a period of nearly consistent decline in suicide rates in the United States from 1986 through 1999, suicide rates have increased almost steadily from 1999 through 2014."

A message on a basketball launched Janay Jumping Eagle on a anti-suicide campaign that has reached all the way to the White House. Photo by Janay Jumping Eagle

Tribes across the nation have declared emergencies in response to suicides, particularly among youth. The Yurok Tribe in northern California saw seven young people in one community take their lives during a recent 18-month period. Chairman Thomas O’Rourke took part in an awareness walk last September, having lost his 23-year-old son to suicide.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota made headlines last year after disclosing that at least 20 young people committed suicide in the span of 11 months. More than 250 attempts were reported during that same time.

"There's no hope for a lot of our people," tribal elder Bennett “Tuffy” Sierra said at the National Congress of American Indians annual convention last October. He criticized the organization for not taking a greater role in tackling the crisis.

"I see it in papers but I don't see it here," Serra said.

Youth participate in a healing camp on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo by Cindy Giago

Tribal leaders have blamed alcoholism, poverty and lack of opportunity for the high rates. They have asked Congress for increases in federal funding for mental health, education, social services and other critical programs in their communities.

"Grants are not the answer -- they set programs up for failure," Chairman Darrell G. Seki of the Red Lake Nation of Minnesota, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs at a hearing last June. "Only sustained funding of effective programs will end youth suicides in Indian Country. Red Lake has a plan to do that but we need sustained funding to do so.”

The Obama administration has stepped in with funds for suicide prevention programs but Native youth are also taking it on themselves to spur change. Through its Champions for Change initiative, the Centers for Native American Youth has helped elevate youth who are working to make a difference.

"My initiative is geared to make sure that the tragic epidemic of suicide doesn’t ever occur upon my Nation or upon any other Nation," Brayden White of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in New York said on CNAY's website. He created a group called Helping Hands, a peer education and mentoring program focused on drug, alcohol and suicide prevention.

National Center for Health Statistics Documents:
Suicide Rates for Females and Males by Race and Ethnicity: United States, 1999 and 2014 | Data Brief: Increase in Suicide in the United States, 1999–2014

Join the Conversation

Related Stories:
Lakota Country Times: Teenager's anti-suicide movement grows (04/12)
First Nation in Manitoba declares emergency over youth suicide (03/22)
Lakota Country Times: Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe tackles suicide (03/10)
Arne Vainio: Let's start to banish the shame associated with suicide (03/03)
President Obama seeks another increase for Indian Health Service budget (02/10)
Yurok Tribe declares state of emergency in response to suicides (01/21)
South Dakota Legislature hears first State of the Tribes address (01/15)
Lakota Country Times: Oglala Sioux Tribe addresses youth suicide (01/06)
Vi Waln: Bullying remains a big problem in tribal communities (12/22)
Oglala Sioux Tribe loses grant for suicide prevention program (11/23)
Mike Myers: Historical trauma takes hold of tribal nations (11/06)
Brandon Ecoffey: Real and immediate threats to our people (11/06)
Ivan Star Comes Out: Addressing trauma in our communities (11/03)
Gyasi Ross: Do more to address suicide among our Native youth (10/28)
Suicide raised as major issue during NCAI's annual convention (10/20)
Oglala Sioux Tribe seeks answers for high rate of youth suicide (10/16)
Alaska Native village reels from string of suicides among youth (10/13)
Alfred Walking Bull: Let's open up about suicide in Indian Country (10/06)
Tribe in Colombia still struggling after being forced out of homeland (09/30)
Chair of Yurok Tribe shares struggle after losing son to suicide (09/14)
BIA declares Hope for Life Day to raise awareness about suicide (09/10)
Ernestine Chasing Hawk: I remember I am alive and a survivor (08/31)
Native Sun News: Oglala Sioux counselor combats youth suicide (08/31)
Student from Nooksack Tribe focused on traditions after tragedy (07/13)
Lakota Country Times: Rosebud youth hold suicide awareness walk (07/03)
Lawmakers promise to help tribes bring a halt to youth suicide (06/25)
Pine Ridge Reservation school receives $218K for youth suicide (06/23)
Tribes impacted by youth suicide to appear at Senate hearing (06/22)
David Walker: IHS fails to recognize and respond to oppression (06/22)
Senate Indian Affairs Committee sets hearing on youth suicide (06/19)
Interview: Chief Gary Batton of Choctaw Nation shares struggles (06/16)
Terese Marie Mailhot: Indian Country needs allies -- not saviors (06/01)
Summer Montileaux: Silence on sexual abuse in Indian Country (05/29)
Mary Pember: New allies in battle against Indian youth suicide (05/20)
Joe Flood: What's lurking behind suicides in Indian Country? (05/18)
Oglala Sioux Tribe struggles with high rate of suicide among youth (05/01)
Ginger Lerner-Wren: Boost IHS funding to combat youth suicide (04/28)
Lakota Country Times: Families come together to fight suicide (04/20)
WBUR: Reporter discusses youth suicide in Oglala Sioux Tribe (04/15)
Oglala Sioux Tribe struggles to address suicide among its youth (04/13)
First Lady Obama speaks to Native youth at White House session (04/08)
Dominique Alan Fenton: Racism at core of Native youth suicide (04/02)
Native Sun News: Oglala Sioux youth step up to address suicide (03/13)
Regina Brave: Let's learn to forgive ourselves for our pettiness (03/11)
Charles Trimble: A Lakota memorial for victims of youth suicide (03/10)
Ivan Star: Oglala Sioux Tribe suffers with suicide among youth (03/10)