Native American teens are dying at an alarming rate. Why?

As suicide rates in the U.S. have risen over the past two decades, one demographic has been especially impacted but largely ignored: Native American teens. 

According to the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, suicide was the second leading cause of death for American Indians and Alaska natives between the ages of 10 and 34 in 2017. In fact, the overall death rate from suicide for those two ethnic groups is approximately 20 percent higher compared to non-Hispanic whites — American Indian and Alaska native females between the ages of 15 and 19 alone have a death rate three times higher than non-Hispanic white females in the same age bracket. 

The figures highlight an issue that few outside the Native American population pay attention to. As the country grapples with a disturbing trend in which youth suicide has led to an overall lower life expectancy, it has struggled to provide sufficient resources and support to the one community whose high rates of teenage suicide can partly be traced to its tumultuous history. 

“One of the main contributing factors when we look at Native youth suicide today is not necessarily what’s happening now but also what happened in the past,” Elizabeth Rule, the director of the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy and an enrolled citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, explained to In The Know. “We have to think about the types of families and households people are coming up in — their parents, their elders, their uncles, their aunties [and] their grandparents who are also struggling with their own historical trauma.”

Historical trauma, as it was once defined by Native American activist and social worker Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, is the “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma.” In the case of the Native American community, centuries of genocide by European colonizers combined with the seizure of tribal lands and modern-day mistreatment of Native Americans have led to a number of psychological consequences. As a result, those within the community can experience a number of symptoms not limited to suicidal ideation, survivor guilt, depression and low self-esteem. 

“A very clear example of [trauma] would be Native American boarding schools [that were established in the 1870s],” Rule said. “These were government-mandated, policy-ordered schools for Native children that separated Native children from their families, their communities. We know from the historical record that there was rife sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse. Although we don’t have these boarding schools today, we have the survivors coming out of that deeply traumatic experience.”

The lack of sufficient economic resources has further aggravated the circumstances for many Native American teens. As Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research notes, one in three Native Americans live in poverty with a median income of $23,000 a year. Much of the poverty today has been attributed to the lack of available jobs in the construction and manufacturing sectors, the decline of the minimum wage and unstable employment. 

But several experts agree that the most important issue that needs to be confronted right now is the recognition of tribal sovereignty, which has been tied to the high suicide rates among Native American teens.  

“Reservations started out during the 19th century as prison camps. To this day, tribal identification numbers stem from ‘prisoner of war’ numbers issued more than 100 years ago,” Jesse Phelps, a communications specialist at the advocacy group Lakota People’s Law Project, said. “The legacy of this colonial violence is endemic poverty and, predictably, high suicide rates. The short answer to this question is that, to avoid high suicide rates, a strong commitment to nation building for tribal communities needs to be made by the United States.”

Giving Native tribes complete space to be — and govern — themselves is essential, Rule added. Native Americans frequently face roadblocks in their fight for visibility, often being “relegated to the past,” she said. 

“One of the areas where we see success with our Native youth and recovering their mental health and preventing these tragedies would be through cultural connectedness,” Rule said. “There are more than 500 tribes in the United States, and they’re all culturally, linguistically, socially distinct. So, it’s really hard to do a one-size-fits-all model except when it comes down to supporting tribes to empower themselves.”

Furthermore, experts say more attention needs to be paid to Native American victims of dating, domestic and sexual violence, many of whom are either scared of seeking help or don’t know where to find support. More than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native men and women have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to a 2016 study from the National Institute of Justice.

To shed light on it, some social media users have taken to TikTok to recount their experiences. In June, for instance, a user with the handle morningeagle recalled how her offender only targeted Native women. 

“I was one of those women,” a text overlay in her TikTok reads. “I was broken for a long time, but I am strong now. [And] I will use my voice so he can’t hurt anyone else anymore.” 

@morningeagle

😭 ##fyp ##native ##mmiw ##mmiwawareness ##nomorestolensisters

♬ Savage Daughter – Sarah Hester Ross

In an effort to address this issue, along with the larger one of teen suicide, StrongHearts Native Helpline is one of several services that provide a safe space for Native American teens. Those looking for support can reach out daily from 8 a.m. EST to 11 p.m. EST. 

“When teens are in unhealthy and abusive relationships, they themselves are feeling anxious, depressed, fearful, guilty [and] ashamed, and they might begin to believe that they have done something to deserve abuse, which leads them to contemplate or commit suicide,” Ericca Hovie, the communications manager at the helpline, told In The Know. 

Multiple federal agencies and advocacy organizations — such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration and the Center for Native American Youth — are similarly tackling some of the factors that can lead to suicidal ideation by engaging in outreach. Those involved say that education is key — in many communities such as the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Shawnee, Okla., suicide remains a taboo subject. 

“From a systemic level, it does appear to be acknowledged as a need but not really given a great deal of focus or provide much depth beyond that level,” Rickey Whisenhunt, a licensed counselor at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Behavioral Health Clinic, said. “More importantly — and this is where qualitative data we’ve found comes in — is that it isn’t talked about at a family level. Most late adolescents and young adults surveyed and interviewed report little to no acknowledgement of suicide within the family until an act of suicide is completed by someone in or close with a person’s own family.”

But significant progress in raising awareness about suicide — and mental health — has been made over the years, Rule acknowledged. 

“Of course we have regular societal barriers to talking about mental health and suicide just like everyone else, but I’m really happy to say that there are some incredible grassroots organizers and community-led initiatives that are taking charge and showing that it’s okay to talk about these struggles,” she said.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Click here to learn more about the warning signs of suicide.

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