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Understanding How to Evolve as a Nation

Native American Youth Suicides and the Sequester

by RAMONA TAHERI

Statistics concerning Native American death rates as compared to the rest of the United States population deserve much more attention than they receive.

In 2010, Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, compiled a report entitled “The Tragedy of Native American Youth Suicide.” The report echoes a 2008 study by the Indian Health Service (IHS) in stating: “The rate of suicide for American Indian and Alaska Natives is far higher than that of any other ethnic group in the United States—70% higher than the rate for the general population of the United States. American Indian and Alaska Native youth are among the hardest hit. They have the highest rate of suicide for males and females, ages 10 to 24, of any racial group.”

Additionally, the report declares that on certain reservations, the incidence of youth suicide was found to be 10 times the national average. These statistics are by no means recent developments, with studies by the Centers for Disease Control showing similar numbers from between 1989 and 1998. Dorgan’s report lists a few risk factors specific to Native American populations living on reservations, including rampant alcohol and drug abuse, high sexual assault rates, low socioeconomic status, etc.

The IHS and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) took note of alarming Native American suicide rates in the early 2000s and have worked together to create targeted suicide prevention programs. The IHS established a Suicide Prevention Initiative in 2003. SAMHSA bestowed funding to the IHS in 2004 & 2005 specifically to address youth suicides and provided Garrett Lee Smith grants to programs aimed at suicide prevention within high risk populations.

Among other efforts, the IHS provides suicide prevention training for professionals and community stakeholders, funds intervention programs for adolescents who have attempted suicide, and provides peer counseling programs. SAMHSA’s Tribal Affairs Program focuses on Native American youth suicide prevention, and attempts to partner with federal organizations, nonprofit organizations, and behavioral health professionals in curbing suicide rates. These seem to be steps in the right direction, for according to Dorgan, “funding for youth suicide prevention must be a priority for both Congress and the Indian Health Service.”

Unfortunately, however, the federal government recently enacted dramatic budget cuts to SAMHSA and the IHS. Congressman Henry Waxman stated SAMHSA was set to lose over $200 million of funds in 2013 due to the sequester. The budget cut, Waxman states, will affect every single SAMHSA program. The IHS itself will also incur $220 million in sequestration cuts in 2013, which is troublesome for many additional reasons unrelated to suicides.

Talk of budget sequestration can be, at times, incredibly vague. A discussion of what programs are impacted and how the government spends its money are necessary to understand how to evolve as a nation.

Note: Upon leaving the United States Senate, Byron L. Dorgan founded the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY) at the Aspen Institute. CNAY intends to improve the well-being of Native youth, paying special attention to suicide prevention. Learn more at www.cnay.org.

Ramona Taheri holds a Master’s in Political Science from Columbia University.

Sources:

Byron L. Dorgan. “The Tragedy of Native American Youth Suicide.” Psychological Services, Vol 7(3), Aug 2010, 213-218. doi: 10.1037/a0020461.

Centers for Disease Control. “Atlas of Injury Mortality” http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/pub-res/american_indian_injury_atlas/11d-allmaps-suicide.htm.

Henry Waxman’s full statement to the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations- http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Statement-Waxman-OI-SAMHSA-Mentally-Ill-Services-2013-5-22.pdf.

Indian Health Services. http://www.ihs.gov.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. http://www.samhsa.gov.