Honoring Native Youth: Preventing Youth Suicide
It seems like it happens in an instance. One moment they are there and the next they are gone. The signs are there, but often no one sees it coming. What we do see is the emptiness left behind… manifested not only in the physical sense like an empty classroom desk, but in the hearts, minds, and spirits of those who mourn their loss… their absence a constant reminder of what once was and what will never be again.
The recent rise of youth suicides on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has left a staggering emptiness and communities on the South Dakota reservation are organizing to prevent this misfortune from spreading.
Youth suicide is not new for the Oglala Lakota on Pine Ridge. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2012 reported that suicide is the second leading cause of death among American Indians/Alaskan Natives aged 15 to 34 years. The CDC also found that the rate of suicide among American Indians/Alaskan Natives in that group is 2.5 times higher than the national average.
Yet, something uncanny is happening on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In the months since December, 2014, nine youths between the ages of 12 and 24 have taken their own lives while at least another 103 suicide attempts have been made.
In response to this recent outbreak, the Oglala Sioux Tribe has declared a reservation-wide state of emergency. The Indian Health Service has dispatched additional mental health professionals to assist its six full-time counselors that regularly service the reservation.
Throughout American Indian communities, it is commonly understood that the issue of youth suicide goes beyond any family disorder and is deeply rooted in the history of colonization and oppression felt by many American Indian communities. The loss of culture and resulting realities (e.g., poverty, geographic isolation, substandard housing, and social prejudice) all contribute to other social conditions such as alcoholism, drug abuse, mental/sexual abuse. All of this paired with a general lack of access to basic resources has created a pervasive hopelessness in some reservation communities.
On top of this, the current generation of young American Indians is experiencing a host of new pressures in their daily lives. Cyberbullying has created an environment where a young person who is bullied at school can now be exposed to cyberbullying anywhere at any time. Compounded with hardships at home, some young people may have no safe place in their lives. Sometimes suicide is seen as the only reprieve. (To learn more about cyberbulling, visit stopbullying.gov.)
There is some good news in that groups of young people across Pine Ridge are organizing to find ways to support suicide prevention on the reservation. Young people understand they must have a voice in addressing an issue that affects them directly – even while tribal governments and programs look to address the issue. A three-day summit held at the Oglala Lakota College Piya Wiconi campus in early March brought together youth, tribal officials and programs to start a dialogue on suicide prevention. Collaborative efforts like these will be necessary to bridge youth and adults while working together to decrease the loss of youth to suicide on the reservation.