Suicide on the Reservation

This is the first of a series of three columns about suicide among young people on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Any publicity about suicide can be risky because copycat incidents could result.

Yet, as a mother of one of the victims says, it is also important to understand suicide in order to help others, so solutions can be found. The Standing Rock community is working hard at finding solutions.

Today’s column focuses on the incidents and those who were affected. The second will describe how the Lakota people, including programs and tribal leaders, have rallied to address the problem.

The third column will include some observations and thoughts for the future.

Five young people–three teenagers and two 25-year-olds–on the Standing Rock reservation in Fort Yates, N.D., took their own lives from December through January. In addition, and in that same time period, more than 30 young people made some kind of a suicide threat or attempt that brought them to the Indian Health Service facility in Fort Yates, according to Indian Health Service staff.

Indian reservations aren’t the only place where suicide is a cause of death. According to national statistics, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among 15- to 25-year-olds.

This is frightening.

What caused this epidemic of suicide on the Standing Rock Reservation? There is no one cause, no one answer, health-care and tribal leaders say. The really scary part is there doesn’t seem to be a pattern, the father of a young teen who attempted suicide said.

“We saw no signs that our daughter was considering suicide,” this father told me. She participates in ceremonial inipi (sweats), doesn’t abuse drugs or alcohol and is a good student. It wasn’t until her father and mother went to classes on suicide that they could identify signs–for example, their daughter was too quiet and seemed to have trouble dealing with younger children.

Yet, still she didn’t seem like the typical suicide victim.

This girl’s parents are divorced, but both still take an active interest in their children. They spend much of their free time with their children and participate in the Lakota culture.

When the incident happened, the family came together. The girl’s sisters, mother and father took turns being with her–they never left her alone. They rallied around her, trying to find where they had missed her hand when she was reaching out for them.

They were able to intervene, and their daughter now is getting help.

That wasn’t true of a woman I had lunch with. As I sat down at the table with her and two other health-care workers, I could see there was a sadness about her. There was a shadow in her eyes that just didn’t go away, even when she laughed.

Her son killed himself a couple of years ago, she told me. His death is like nothing she ever experienced. When a young person dies in an accident or from disease, that is a “normal” if terribly tragic death. But with suicide, it is different, she said. It is unlike a death from any other cause.

One of her relatives told her that she needed to “get over” her son’s death. She would never, ever get over it, she fired back. She will carry that pain for the rest of her life.

If it’s possible to imagine an even deeper pain, it’s being experienced by the mother of two young boys, both of whom took their own lives. It simply is unimaginable to fathom what this woman is going through.

During the 1990s, the tribe experienced a similar surge in suicides. At that time, the deaths were different: There were patterns and signs.

Back then, most of those who committed suicide were young men. But in the recent incidents, four were females, and one was a male. In the 1990s episodes, the young people often had been involved in alcohol and drugs. This time, health-care staff say, the young people were not necessarily involved in those things. Some were good students and came from good families. And generally, females who commit suicide use pills of some kind. But most of the recent suicides were by hanging.

Like a strain of flu or cluster of cancer cases, the two spikes in suicides on the reservation are similar but somewhat different in cause and method.

The Standing Rock Lakota nation is reeling with the loss and struggling to find answers. Those answers may be hard to come by, but the tribe is finding answers. I’ll describe those answers for you in my next column.

DORREEN YELLOW BIRD writes for the Grand Forks Herald and