Discussion of Suicide and in-depth Description of Suicidal Actions (TW)

This summer, I was one of several Reserve students who had the incredible opportunity of visiting Pine Ridge, South Dakota – a Native American reservation for the Oglala Lakota community. On the second day of our week of cultural exploration and service, we listened to a speaker named Inila Wakan, who is the founder of the Santana House and a summer math camp for the girls of the reservation. Wakan related his first-hand experiences with youth suicide in the Lakota community.

Wakan’s granddaughter Santana sadly came from a broken, impoverished home; her parents had split, and she lived in a two-bedroom trailer with several siblings. Santana slept on the floor, packed in like sardines among the other children. Eventually, she had had enough. Santana had told a girl of her plan, but the girl didn’t alert an adult. One morning, she was found lifeless, having committed suicide by hanging.

While Santana is one of 32 children out of every 100,000 who are victims of a national suicide epidemic, this statistic does not shed light on the horrific prevalence of suicide within Native American communities across the U.S.; within this demographic, suicide is the second leading cause of death. Furthermore, its worst effects are felt by native adolescents and young adults, as 40% of those Native Americans who die by suicide are between the ages of 13 and 24. Clearly, suicide among native populations is a hidden crisis within the suicide epidemic, one that is not receiving the attention it needs.

The causes of suicide are complex and include a range of factors, not all of which are apparent. Mental illness plays a role in almost 90 percent of suicides, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and such conditions are often treatable. In the case of the American Indian community, mental health resources are unfortunately in short supply and don’t always reach them. For example, the Indian Health Services department, which cares for 2.2 million American Indians, is severely underfunded. The average IHS per-person spending is around $3,000 compared to the $8,000 spent on healthcare per-person for the general population. Furthermore, these relatively small communities are also at a much higher risk than the national average for other health issues: Native Americans are more likely to die of alcohol-related causes, and they face above-average rates for occurrences of diabetes and tuberculosis.

“All these factors help foment a sense of loss and despair among Native youth,” Wakan remarked. He also suggested that piecemeal intervention tactics to stop youth suicides just aren’t going to cut it anymore. “Suicide as a whole is a terrible, destructive wave destroying our communities, but the fact that for some people their struggles are being overlooked or ignored is despicable. No matter the history and background, people, let alone children, can never be overlooked.”

Thankfully, all is not bleak; American Indian communities are working to combat some of the contributing factors. These efforts include advocating for the power to prosecute non-Indians for crimes committed on a reservation (crucial for domestic violence cases) and confronting social forces such as bullying and sexual abuse. Other evidence-based practices on this issue are still emerging.

-Elliana Polyak ’21

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