Lawmakers promise to help tribes bring a halt to youth suicide

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee hears testimony on youth suicide on June 24, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

Tribes affected by youth suicide share struggles
By Andrew Bahl
Indianz.Com Staff Writer

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs heard testimony on youth suicide on Wednesday, leading to calls for additional funding to address a crisis affecting tribes across the nation.

According to the White House Native Youth Report, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for American Indians and Alaska Natives ages 15 through 24. Their rate of suicide is 2.5 times higher than the national average.

The problem is particularly acute for young Native males. According to the report, their rate of suicide was by far the highest among all Americans ages 15 to 24.

“We return to this issue because youth suicide continues to plague too many Indian communities,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the committee, said in his opening remarks. “I will not stand idly by, nor will this committee."

"We all share the goal of ending youth suicide in Indian Country," Barrasso added.

Barrso noted that the committee has held six hearings in the last decade on youth suicide. Despite the severity of the problem, he remains concerned that the Indian Health Service and other federal agencies have mismanaged their response to the epidemic.

“I’m very concerned that the administration’s plan and actions thus far has been insufficient,” he said, adding that the IHS’ duty “is to uphold the federal obligation to promote healthy Indian communities and honor tribal governance but it has failed to do so.”

Robert McSwain, the acting director of the IHS, said that his agency is committed to eliminating youth suicides. The agency is improving training for workers in an attempt to achieve that goal, he told the committee.

“Suicide is complex and thus has many factors that must be considered,” McSwain said. “Reducing the number of suicides requires the engagement and commitment of many people in and outside of government. IHS is committed to being a partner in the response to end Native youth suicides. We want to work with you to get us closer to the zero suicide goal.”

Youth participate in a healing camp on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo by Cindy Giago

Collins "C.J." Clifford, a council member for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said youth are overcome with hopelessness due poor economic and social conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Since December, 14 young people -- including a 12-year-old girl -- have taken their lives and 160 more youth have attempted suicide.

“The adults on my reservation have little hope and their children see that every day. There are too few bright spots for our people,” Clifford testified. “The commitment of our people working to combat these feelings and struggles is second to none, but we are restricted by the lack of resources to address all the contributing factors on our reservation that result in hopelessness in our children.”

Darrell G. Seki, the chairman of the Red Lake Nation of Minnesota, said youth suicide is a cyclical problem fueled by high rates of alcohol and drug abuse. Two children -- including a nine-year-old boy -- have taken their lives this year alone.

“The trail to suicide isn’t far from lack of job opportunities,” Seki said in his testimony. “A lack of employment opportunities results in poverty and disparity. Poverty and disparity can lead to drugs and addiction. Drug addiction leads to tear down of our families, which often precipitates high suicide rates.”

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Oversight Hearing on "Demanding Results to End Native Youth Suicides"

Seki also took aim at sequestration, which has resulted in across-the-board cuts to the IHS and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He blamed suicide on funding shortages.

“Sequestration is a nightmare for tribes like Red Lake,” Seki told the committee. “Sequestration has limited our ability to address our problems. Grants are not the answer—they set programs up for failure. Only sustained funding of effective programs will end youth suicides in Indian Country. Red Lake has a plan to do that but we need sustained funding to do so.”

Dr. Teresa LaFromboise, a professor of psychological and developmental sciences at Stanford University, has worked with Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico to address youth suicide. The tribe's program employs “culturally appropriate” strategies to help build students’ life skill, she said, adding that these programs can be used alongside more traditional approaches to address the problem.

“Our school encourages culturally appropriate ways that students can express emotions like grief or anger,” LaFramboise said, adding later that “we know from our research that people with strong cultural identities are less likely to be involved in suicide.”

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) and nearly every one of his colleagues on the committee attended the hearing. He echoed the need for increased funding, pointing out that “we can’t depend on children to fix this themselves.”

“We’re the adults here, we’re the Senate Indian Affairs Committee,” Franken said. “We have to fight for funding for you because who else will do this if not us?"

"We have adult responsibilities and that does not include taking away school counselors during sequestration," Franken added. "I apologize that we haven’t been doing enough for you and your kids.”

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) is co-sponsoring S.1497, a bill to exempt Indian programs from sequestration. He hailed the positive results seen at Zuni Pueblo but said other tribes in his state have experienced "suicide clusters" when two or more young people take their lives over the course of a year or less.

"We must create and sustain opportunities for them to learn the value of their cultures and identities," Udall said. "We need to make sure that they are connected to adequate mental health services. We must show them that their lives matter."

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) also emphasized the funding issue. Her bill, S.246, the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children Act, would recommend ways to improve federal, tribal, state and local programs that serve Native youth.

"We cannot simply say we share your concern," Heitkamp said "It is no longer acceptable to tell families that we share your concern. We must take action. Unfortunately that action involves resources."

Through the Generation Indigenous initiative, the White House is trying to direct more resources to Native youth. President Barack Obama requested $50 million for a new Tribal Behavioral Health Initiative for Native Youth that will expand the Methamphetamine and Suicide Prevention Initiative at the IHS and develop more suicide prevention programs at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

But the efforts are being put in doubt by cuts included in H.R.2822, a Republican-drafted appropriations bill that funds Indian and other programs. Obama is threatening to veto the measure because it removes $300 million from the IHS budget request.

The House is due to take up the bill this afternoon, according to the Republican majority leader's schedule. It marks the first time in six years that lawmakers have considered a funding bill for the BIA, the IHS and related agencies.

Committee Notice:
Oversight Hearing on "Demanding Results to End Native Youth Suicides" (June 24, 2015)

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