Taking their lives

By Michelle Chen Feb 27, 2009

Yesterday on Capitol Hill, Dana Lee Jetty, a North Dakota high school student and member of the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation, shared the story of her last encounter with her sister:

I walked towards the back of the house and saw that the bathroom door was closed but the light was on. I opened it but she was not in there. I looked towards Jami’s bedroom and her door was also closed. I opened it and was instantly flooded with feelings of fear and shock. It was like a horrible dream that I could not wake up from. I saw my sister with a belt fastened to the bunk bed and wrapped around her neck. Jami was sitting lifelessly, her body leaning against the wall. I ran to get my boyfriend and I tried to get the belt off her neck but it was too tight. My boyfriend got a knife and cut her down. All I could do is yell “Why?” as I rocked her lifeless body in my arms.

So began the Senate Indian Affairs Committee’s oversight hearing on youth suicide. The federal government reports, “Suicide is the second leading cause of death behind unintentional injuries for Indian youth ages 15-24 residing in [Indian Health Services] service areas and is 3.5 times higher than the national average.” The problem folds into a range of health disparities—high infant mortality, pervasive disease, and appallingly underfunded social-service resources—along with other barriers to economic and educational opportunity. Robert Moore, a member of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association and Aberdeen Area Tribal Chairman’s Health Board, testified about suicide as both a crisis in itself and a symptom of deeper ills in Indian Country:

the Great Plains region suffers from extreme disparities in health, educational opportunities, and poverty, and suicide among our young people is limiting the potential of future generations to overcome these challenges. Our young people live in great despair—witnessing the extreme emotional and social impact of high rates of infant deaths, living with poverty and often within abusive households, and watching other young people taking their own lives.

Though the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has taken steps to boost suicide prevention resources for Indian youth, the loss of life continues at a devastating rate. R. Dale Walker, director of the Portland-based One Sky Center, which provides training and technical support on suicide prevention to tribes, stressed the importance of native-oriented intervention programs that are community and culturally based. He also pointed to a need to treat the underlying causes of suicide:

More programs to improve youth development; remove pathological community factors; and foster community self-determination, vision, and hope for the future would significantly reduce suicide and, further, greatly improve the well-being and productivity of an entire generation—the youth of today, the adults of tomorrow.

According to a 2003 study on risk factors among native youth, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis discovered:

…the risk factors correlated with suicidal behavior that were unique to reservation youth were depression, a family history of drug abuse, alcohol abuse (in the youth), an arrest history, and racial discrimination. According to [researcher Stacey] Freedenthal, many of the reservation youth were bused to schools in predominantly white suburbs. "In focus groups, the youth living on the reservations reported a great deal of discrimination against them, perhaps most surprisingly by their teachers."

There is a pathology to suicide, but we’d be deceiving ourselves to think these young lives are being taken solely by their own hands.