Native American Youth at Higher Risk for Suicide


Suicide rates among Native American youth are alarming. It seems as though these deaths often occur in clusters or groups. Now, advocates and officials throughout North America are trying to figure out why – what’s the trigger and what can we do to stop this from happening? It takes a village to raise a child, but it can also take an entire community to save one.

High Rates of Suicide in Aboriginal Canadian Youth

Sixteen youth deaths in 18 months within the community of Pikangikum in Northern Canada prompted an inquiry, resulting in a Chief Coroner’s Death Review that cited some heart-breaking and unsettling case studies.

Sixteen-year-old Janice committed suicide after binge drinking and sniffing gasoline, continuing her self-abuse even after repeatedly being picked up by police for public intoxication in the years prior to her death. 

Vanessa,14, hung herself. She wasn’t a “sniffer,” inhaling toxic glue vapors, solvents or gasoline fumes to get herself high, but she did abuse alcohol. She phoned a friend and also left a message on her internet page that she was going to “do something” to herself, but her friend couldn’t contact her in time.

John, 12,  hung himself from a poplar tree outside his grandmother’s house just after visiting his mom’s grave. She was a chronic alcoholic who had hung herself when he was only 11 years old. John was afraid of his hallucinations about his mother and the devil, and was still sniffing while authorities tried to find him a treatment facility.

Margaret was 18 years old and sniffing solvents when her brother saw a rope in her pocket. He was alarmed and called the police, but she ran away. When they found her the next day, she was hanging from a tree near her parents’ home. She suffered from auditory hallucinations that may have been exacerbated by solvent abuse.

Why are Aboriginal Canadian Youth turning to suicide?

All these children had been abused, either sexually or physically, before their suicide as reported by the coroners’ reports. All had alcoholic parents and had been detained by authorities before they took their lives, and all had suffered from abandonment because of their parents’ own problems.

None of these children received counseling or treatment, even though all were high-risk. Most suffered from some degree of mental illness. All found the emotional attachment they craved within their community’s sub-culture of sniffers and substance abusers, since they didn’t receive the support they needed at home.

There was no safe place for these kids to gather and have innocent fun in their communities, they turned away from the school system and had lost their cultural belief systems and traditions. In their loneliness and depression, they turned to substance abuse. One of the most startling discoveries of the Chief Coroner’s Death Review was that the 16 deaths seemed to take place in three “clusters” (groups of death within one month of each other). As the report stated, “Their lives were occupied by sniffing at night, sleeping during the day and truancy from school.” Despite these results, the government has taken no concrete steps toward finding ways to alleviate the situation.

Saving the Youth by Sharing Their Culture

Northern youth are attempting to reach their peers, connect communities and educate the general population by revitalizing the Cree language in a recent collaborative album. Kyle Napier, a member of the NWT Metis Nation shared that “Twenty years ago, there had been 75,000 reported Cree language speakers, but these days the number is around 50,000. And I am afraid that number is on a steep decline unless we take action, We live at the crux of indigenous language revitalization. This moment right now. Is when we need to come together with our elders and our youth and create these intergenerational projects.”

Other Cree youth are reaching out with music of their own, trying to bridge old and new and bring the language back to The People. Perhaps this is a way to bring back the native culture for children throughout the continent, and to celebrate their common experience and heritage. Communities are trying to rally to help their youth and combat their losses despite the lack of funding and help from government agencies. Social workers are desperately attempting to help at-risk youth and give them hope, trying to be a bridge between the youth, community and government to save this generation of lost children. If elders, youth, communities and the government can come together, then perhaps strides can be made in finding solutions for the statistics.

Youth Suicide in New Mexico

Meanwhile, in New Mexico, Coloradas Mangas shared how the Mescalero Apache traditionally honor the spirits with crown dances during sorrowful or difficult times. He said that now is such a time, with the high suicide rate of Native American youth in New Mexico. Mangas has been fighting this threat since 2010, when he was a sophomore at Ruidoso High School, after the two previous years when suicides by groups of teens in the Navajo Nation and the Mescalero Apache reservation rocked the community. He was 16 years old when he listed the names of all the youth who had died during his lifetime in front of the U.S Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. 

Mangas insists that there needs to be access to additional mental health services, as well as “streamlined Medicaid approval” for folks referred to residential treatment centers. Tribes need to provide alternative entertainment for kids – places where they can join together to have fun so they can resist the subculture of drinking and substance abuse. “I am also from a new generation of young men and women who believe in breaking the silence and seeking help,” Mangas told the committee. “I believe in change.”

Causes of Suicide in New Mexico Youth

The suicide of so many youth is devastating to the small indigenous population. The government’s action in moving tribes away from their homes ripped them from much of their cultural heritage, explains Corrine Sanchez, the executive director of Tewa Women United. Entire generations lost their ties with their tribes’ belief system and language. They were left adrift in strange cities, in strange surroundings.

“When recounting the traumatic events from enslavement and conquest 400 years ago to child sexual abuse within the last century’s boarding schools Sanchez’s voice remains steady and even. But she believes that there is hope if the shame is allowed to escape and if the anger and guilt can be expressed…”We want to protect the most vulnerable, bring back the core values, and honor and strengthen women and children,” she says. “We are ourselves. But we’re made up of our past, and the choices we make will affect future generations. We need to think about our responsibility.”

When a survey was administered to over 1300 Native Americans from seven New Mexico communities, they found that 29% of those surveyed had been exposed to physical and emotional abuse, neglect, sexual abuse and alcoholism, parental detachment or violence at home. And this is a conservative estimate, with the shame shown when interviews were conducted face-to-face.

Social isolation and alienation can lead to alcohol abuse and may contribute to mental illness. Youth may feel as though they belong nowhere but within their small gang of like-minded kids (aka “thwarted belongingness.”) Yes, neglect can play a part in the high volume of suicides, but only when it’s placed within the entire context of what these youth go through on a daily basis. With nowhere to turn, no support, isolation, abuse, helplessness and hopelessness, often they see suicide as the only escape. Parents remove themselves from their own children’s lives, and when questioned, they honestly know nothing of what their child has been doing or why they may have taken their lives. Most children had not attended school for a long time, and some parents had no awareness of that fact. 

Fighting the Statistics

So how can you combat this vicious cycle? Social workers in Canada and New Mexico advise that parents listen to their children to discover what’s important to them. Get involved in their lives and promote healthy communication. Don’t tell a child that his or her concerns are silly, advises Casias. “Ask what they are feeling,” she says. “Parents need to understand what’s important to their kids. A lot don’t. Suicide prevention begins in the home.” 

A return to traditional prayers and healing ceremonies can also combat the isolation and stress. Coloradas cites his mother and grandmother as being instrumental in his life and how his belief system fuels his work in the community. He worries about the elders’ stories of the coming end, something that seems likely to youth with global warming, wars and uncertain economic times.

Coloradas is cautiously proud of his efforts. “Since our program started, we haven’t had a youth suicide here in Mescalero, knock on wood,” he says. He stresses the need for organized programs and help that “resonates” with the Native community. He says the entire community, everywhere, has to rally to save the youth, to help in every way they possibly can. This is true no matter where you live, whether in the north or in the south. After all, the youth are the future and without our children, there can be no future.