The Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing on youth suicide on Wednesday, as panel members struggled to understand why Native Americans are hit particularly hard by the problem.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman of the committee, said he was urged not to hold public hearings on such a sensitive topic. But he said it was important to raise awareness about the extremely high rates of suicide among American Indian and Alaska Native youth.
"This is a hearing that, in many ways, all of us wish we were not attending to discuss a subject that perhaps we wish that wouldn't have to discuss," he said in his opening statement.
Dr. Richard Carmona, the U.S. Surgeon General, confirmed Native American youth commit suicide, or attempt to, at extremely high rates. The rate among Native youth ages 15-24 is
more than three times higher than the national average, he said. In some parts of the Indian Country, particularly the Great Plains, it is even much higher.
"The reality is, that in many of our tribal communities, suicide is not an individual clinical condition
but also a community clinical condition," he testified.
Explaining why the great disparity exists is difficult, Carmona and Dr. Charles Grim, the director of the Indian Health Service, said. Additional research is needed to understand why more Native youth take their lives or have suicidal thoughts, they told the committee.
But Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the committee, suggested that historical mistreatment of Native peoples is likely to blame. He noted that other suicide risk factors --
mental illness, substance abuse and poverty -- exist in non-Indian communities yet they don't suffer from such high rates.
"I don't know how you can draw any other conclusion that it has something to do with the history of
Native Americans and their exploitation and placement in American society, which leads to greater despair," he said.
Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), who lost a son to suicide, agreed that environment likely contributes
to suicide among Native youth. Along with addressing mental health issues, he said the federal government has responsibility to improve education and other opportunities in Indian Country.
"It is possible, maybe even probable, that the rate is higher among Native Americans because of the environmental factors in which they live," he argued.
Joseph B. Stone, a member of the Blackfeet Nation and licensed psychologist, embraced the theory advanced by McCain. He said that preliminary research shows that "historical trauma" or "post-Colonial stress" impacts how Native people deal with problems.
"It seems to have to do with capacity of children to regulate their arousal and the ability of families
and family members impacted by the chronic stress over the course of generations to help those children regulate their arousal," he testified.
In addition to historical concerns, tribal witnesses said the lack of health resources on reservations impacts their ability to deal with suicide. Twila Rough Surface, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, recently lost some family members to suicide within a short period of time.
"At no point did any mental health professional contact our family," she told the committee. She said outreach could have prevented additional suicides.
The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota started a program in response to the lack of services geared toward youth on the reservation. Julie Garreau, the director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project, said the effort has been a success only because the tribe took matters
into its own hands.
"Quite honestly, I would rather not be here today. I would rather not leave my community to testify or fund-raise," she said. "But the reality of the situation is that we need help. Our children need your help."
Dr. R. Dale Walker, a member of the Cherokee Nation who is the director of the One Sky Center at Oregon Health and Sciences University, said reservations are sorely lacking in mental health services. There are only two professionals on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation who deal with at-risk youth.
"It's a four month waiting list," he said. "Two people are not enough."
Clark Flatt, the president and CEO of The Jason Foundation, named for his son who committed suicide, said many efforts fail because they rely solely on government funding. His organization's $9.7 million budget, derived largely from private and corporate sponsors, supports programs
in 36 states and is working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to deal with suicide among Native youth.
Yet government help is available, Smith pointed out. He sponsored the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act of 2004 to provide $82 million over three years to fund youth suicide prevention efforts among
tribes, states and other entities.
"That is our challenge as a nation to do better because this is shameful thing in our country that this rate among Native Americans than other Americans," he said.
The hearing yesterday was the first Washington hearing on suicide. Dorgan led a field hearing in Bismarck, North Dakota, last month.
Oversight Hearing Before the
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on
Youth Suicide Prevention
(June 15, 2005)