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The devastating rate of suicide among American Indian teens

Nov 26, 2014

A tribal member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
Credit Eva Petoskey

Suicide is a major public health problem for American Indians. The suicide rate for American Indian teenagers in particular is 2.5 times higher than the national average. I took a trip over the summer to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians Reservation in Suttons Bay to talk with folks in the community about the issue.

When I visited the reservation, it was rainy, no sun in sight, but that didn't stop a couple thousand people from making the trek to the reservation for the annual powwow. The Anishinaabe word is "Jiingtamok." 

Tyra John is decked out in full beaded regalia, which she proudly tells me she designed herself. The 13-year-old is performing two dances at the powwow today – the hoop dance and jingle dance. She lives on the reservation, and she likes it. She likes how everyone shares the same culture. She finds comfort in that. She kind of gets depressed when she leaves "the rez" to go to a public school nearby.

"My classmates sometimes are not very welcoming of my beliefs or culture."

"We're often ridiculed for our culture in school ... well, I am, anyway," says Tyra. "My classmates sometimes are not very welcoming of my beliefs or culture."

When I ask her how that makes her feel, she hesitates for a moment and then blurts out one word: "Terrible."

Miishen Willis is 17 years old and a member of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Sault Ste. Marie. She now lives in Suttons Bay and was supposed to meet me at the powwow, but her anxiety got the best of her, so we did the interview at her mom’s condo nearby. 

Willis says about five years ago, she started to have these really intense feelings of self-harm and suicidal thoughts. 

"Usually when I have self-harm thoughts I just go to sleep or do something with my hands ... popping bubble wrap really helps," she explains. "And then for suicidal thoughts, I’ve figured out if they get super super bad, I have to get my parents."

When I meet Miishen, she seems like any other bubbly, outgoing teenager. She loves to sing, she wants to be on Broadway. When I ask her to sing a little musical theater snippet, she balks at first but then dives into a song from "Oklahoma!" that shows off her beautiful soprano. You wouldn't guess that she struggles with depression and anxiety. Willis says the psychiatrist she sees in Traverse City really helps, and she’s on medication.

Miishen, her mom, and brother moved from the Upper Peninsula down to Suttons Bay in part so Willis could get better treatment. 

Eva Petoskey works for the Inter-tribal Council of Michigan and is a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. There are 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan, and Petoskey says they all have some kind of behavioral health department, but some are fairly small and mostly consist of a counselor or social worker, sometimes a prevention worker. Petoskey acknowledges that services for teenagers on reservations are limited. She calls it an area "with gaps."

When Miishen lived in the U.P., she and her mom had to drive two and a half hours each way to see a licensed child psychiatrist in Marquette. 

Earlier this year the Washington Post reported on the high rate of suicide among American Indian teens, and highlighted the creation of a new national task force to "examine the violence and its impact on American Indian and Alaska Native children." 

There is an image that Byron Dorgan, co-chairman of the task force and a former senator from North Dakota, can’t get out of his head. On the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota years ago, a 14-year-old girl named Avis Little Wind hanged herself after lying in bed in a fetal position for 90 days. Her death followed the suicides of her father and sister.

“She lay in bed for all that time, and nobody, not even her school, missed her,” said Dorgan, a Democrat who chaired the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. “Eventually she got out of bed and killed herself. Avis Little Wind died of suicide because mental-health treatment wasn’t available on that reservation.”

Indian youth suicide cannot be looked at in a historical vacuum, Dorgan said. The agony on reservations is directly tied to a “trail of broken promises to American Indians,” he said, noting treaties dating back to the 19th century that guaranteed but largely didn’t deliver health care, education and housing.

The task force just issued its final report on the "dire" situation faced by American Indian youth, and what can be done to improve outcomes. The report lists a number of recommendations including more funding from Congress and the establishment of a Native American Affairs Office no later than May 2015.

"There's a sense of hopelessness" on the reservation.

Sandra Momper also believes there are a number of factors that may contribute to the high rate of depression and suicide among American Indian teens, including historical trauma, loss of cultural identity, insufficient federal funding for mental health programs, and poverty. According to the most recent federal data,  more than one third of American Indians on reservations live in poverty.

"There’s a sense of hopelessness," says Momper. "No wonder they get into substance abuse, no wonder they have problems with depression."

Momper is a member of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, and she's also an assistant professor in the University of Michigan's School of Social Work. Momper recently got a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to work with the 12 federally recognized reservations in Michigan to help raise awareness about the teen suicide problem and develop ways to prevent it. She says there's a lot of work to be done.

"Before we get to the stage of help, we need to be training the community to talk about suicide. There's a code of silence."

To break the code of silence, Momper and her team offer workshops called Suicide Talk, to get people more comfortable talking about it. They’ve also developed a screening process to help identify teens who may need help, and they’re currently training tribal elders and other community members on how to recognize the signs of depression before it’s too late.