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Bipartisan bill includes Indian Country in suicide prevention efforts

A simple change in federal law will help tribes address suicide in their communities, according to a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

States already receive federal funds to develop and implement prevention programs. The Native American Suicide Prevention Act will ensure that Indian Country is included in those efforts, lawmakers said as the Senate version of the bill was introduced on Tuesday.

"Any conversation on suicide prevention must begin at the grassroots, and tribal communities must be involved in every step of the process," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), the sponsor of S.3460, said in a press release. "With suicide rates reaching crisis levels in Indian Country, it is now more important than ever to take action."

Joining Warren in co-sponsoring the bill are 16 other members of the Senate, Republicans and Democrats alike. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she wants to ensure Native communities in her state "have a seat at the table in developing and implementing statewide suicide intervention and prevention strategies. "

"Year after year Alaska tops the charts with having some of the highest suicide rates in the country," said Murkowski, a longtime member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "It's far too prevalent in our Native communities."

The language of S.3460 is simple. It requires states -- as a condition of receiving grants under the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Suicide Prevention Act -- to work with tribes, tribal organizations, urban Indians and Native Hawaiians in developing early intervention and prevention strategy programs.

“This legislation is an important step in ensuring tribal collaboration with states to develop effective, culturally-relevant strategies to address the crisis level rates of suicide in Indian Country, particularly among Native youth," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "Tribal-state partnerships will help increase the effectiveness of suicide intervention and prevention programs when they take the unique needs of Indian Country into account."

Tribes were not left out the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Suicide Prevention Act, which first became law in 2004. The original bill, which was named to honor the memory of the late son of former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican from Oregon, acknowledged the high rates of suicide among American Indians and Alaska Natives, including youth.

Tribes, Alaska Natives, tribal colleges and urban Indian organizations have since been awarded grants under the law. But with data showing that Native youth remain at risk, lawmakers believe additional support is needed.

"By requiring states to actively collaborate with tribes on this urgent issue, our bipartisan bill would give tribes a much-needed seat at the table as cutting-edge, evidence-based early intervention and prevention strategies are developed," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), another member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

"I've long advocated for addressing the traumatic stress Native American children experience, and this legislation would also encourage culturally-appropriate practices to enable Native youth to get the support they need and encourage effective suicide prevention so they remain strong and safe," added Heitkamp, whose Commission on Native Youth will be looking at ways to address these and other issues.

The House version of the bill is H.R.3473. It was introduced last summer and has 28 sponsors and co-sponsors.

"By simply providing tribal governments and health organizations a greater voice in the suicide prevention process, we will begin to see more effective interventions that will save lives both on and off the reservation," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, wrote in a letter to colleagues in the House, urging them to support the measure.

Suicide Prevention Resource Center Report
Garrett Lee Smith Youth Suicide Prevention and Early Intervention Program: National outcomes evaluation

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

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