Native youth in Oregon. Photo: Alyssa Macy / Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs

Empower tribal communities to address the suicide crisis

Addressing Indian Country’s Suicide Crisis by Empowering Tribal Communities
By Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Raúl M. Grijalva

Native American reservations are experiencing an epidemic of suicide that is claiming the lives of countless young people. The lingering trauma of lost brothers, sisters, neighbors, and friends echoes through families and communities across Indian Country for years, even generations.

As members of Congress, we have the opportunity—and the responsibility—to mobilize federal resources and work with tribal communities on culturally relevant solutions that will save lives. We have introduced the Native American Suicide Prevention Act to ensure collaboration among states and federally recognized tribes, tribal entities, and urban Indian organizations to design and implement statewide suicide intervention and prevention strategies that work for their communities.

With almost 45,000 suicides in the United States during 2016 alone, and rapidly increasing suicide rates across all demographic groups, it is now more important than ever to take action. It is even more pressing in Indian Country, where suicide rates have reached a crisis level. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Native people ages 10–34. And for AI/AN people ages 15–34, the suicide rate is 1.5 times higher than the national average. On some reservations, the youth suicide rate is 10 times the national average.

While bipartisan legislation like the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act provided funding for suicide prevention on college campuses—including tribal colleges and universities—there is still much to be done for suicide prevention efforts for Native American youth.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts). Photo: National Congress of American Indians

Any conversation on suicide intervention and prevention must begin at the grassroots, and tribal communities must be involved in every step of the process, from conception and design to implementation. Tribal citizens know what works for their communities, and it’s time to reinforce their efforts to implement multi-dimensional and culturally competent approaches to suicide prevention.

Some tribes and Native organizations have successfully developed specialized programs to serve their communities, including the incorporation of Native culture and traditions. Under our legislation, culturally competent programs would be encouraged, explored, supported, and applied broadly to help save more lives—both on and off the reservation.

We have heard the devastating stories of young people taken from us too soon and the trauma left behind by their death. We have heard the heart-wrenching stories from parents, siblings, and friends who were unable to recognize the signs of depression before it was too late. We have heard from constituents, advocates, and tribal leaders who are demanding action and a seat at the table in the effort to create a solution that solves this crisis and saves their communities. The Native American Suicide Prevention Act recognizes their important voices, upholds tribal sovereignty, and asserts that tribal communities are active participants and partners for designing and implementing the suicide prevention programs that best suit their communities.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Arizona). Photo: National Congress of American Indians

Congressman Grijalva has championed the Native American Suicide Prevention Act in the House of Representatives since 2013, and led it most recently with Congressman Tom Cole (R–Okla.). Today, Senator Warren and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R–Alaska) introduced a Senate version of the bill. September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and last week was National Suicide Prevention Week. So now is an opportune time to reaffirm that both parties in Congress must work to ensure suicide prevention efforts include tribal communities.

The Native American Suicide Prevention Act won’t solve this crisis on its own. We can, and we should, do much more on multiple fronts to address mental health issues, historical and intergenerational trauma, and the root causes of depression and suicide in Indian Country. However, we remain confident that this bipartisan bill is an important step forward to combatting this tragic loss of life and ensuring that far fewer families and communities will face the unspeakable trauma of losing a loved one to suicide.

Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, is a U.S. senator from Massachusetts.

Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva represents the third congressional district in Arizona. He is currently the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee and Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Join the Conversation