The suicide rate in the United States has been rising for decades, with some ethnic groups seeing astronomical jumps.
“Native communities experience higher rates of suicide compared to all other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., with suicide being the eighth leading cause of death for American Indians and Alaska Natives across all ages,” according to the National Indian Council on Aging.
In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Native youth, giving them the highest suicide rate for all racial and ethnic groups.
Mental illness risk
The higher rate of mental illness among Native people is linked to higher levels of domestic violence, historical disenfranchisement, lack of access to adequate healthcare, socioeconomic disadvantages, alcohol and drug abuse at younger ages and at higher rates, and cultural disconnection, according to the National Indian Council on Aging. With so many factors contributing to the high suicide rate, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but the Helena Indian Alliance offers outreach programs to help at-risk Native youth find the support they need.
“We work for a federal grant under the HIA called Native Connections,” the program’s outreach coordinator Matt Hartnett said. “It is a federal grant based on suicide prevention for Native youth age 12 to 24. This age group has the highest rate for suicide. It doesn’t mean we’ll refuse someone else, but those adolescents and young adults are our main focus.”
This program seeks to help the young people reconnect with their ancestral roots through activities that teach them about their culture and provide them with opportunities to spend time together. One aspect of the program, Culture is Prevention, teaches about past traditions.
“We have different lessons and crafts,” Hartnett said. “They learn about beadwork and traditional games and activities. We make them proud of who they are and where they come from, which helps kids find an identity.”
Improving mental health outcomes
A loss of identity is a major contributor to the suicide rate in Native youths, Hartnett said. Showing them that there is more to their worth than how they are perceived on social media can be an important step to helping them realize their true identity.
“Finding they have a super rich culture is really eye-opening for youths,” he said.
Another important aspect of the Culture is Prevention program is its focus on connecting youths with tribal elders. Older generations are revered in Native American and Alaska Native cultures for their capacity to pass on important stories to younger tribal members.
“In tribal communities, elders are considered the ‘wisdom-keepers’ and are held in the highest regard,” according to the National Congress of American Indians.
The principles taught in Native Connections helped Hartnett rediscover his own identity following the loss of his mother three years ago. Getting his job with HIA showed him how important it was to connect with his roots.
“I practice what I preach,” Hartnett said. “I seek out an elder if I need help. I always am trying to learn the different crafts that I don’t know personally and just always trying to be a student of what I preach.”
People experiencing a crisis or suicidal thoughts can seek help by calling or texting the National Suicide Prevention help line 24/7 at 988.
For more information on the Native Connections program at Helena Indian Alliance or to help a loved one get access to mental health resources, visit hia-mt.org.