Monday, June 01, 2015

Series explores high rate of suicide among Native American youth; tradition of silence one problem

Native American youth are committing suicide at an alarming rate, and calls for government help for increased mental health services are going unanswered, Laura Paskus and Bryant Furlow report as part of a series for New Mexico In Depth. (In Depth photo by Mark Holm: The National Indian Youth Leadership Project leads a group ice-breaking activity at the beginning of a youth board meeting in Thoreau, N.M.)

Suicide statistics are inconsistent in New Mexico because of jurisdiction rules and medical examiners who sometimes list suicides as accidents, Paskus and Furlow write. The New Mexico Department of Health says that 201 Native Americans between the ages of 9 to 24 died by suicide between 1999 and 2013. The state’s Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI) has records of only 161 investigated deaths of Native American youth between 2000 to 2014.

Analysis by In Depth shows that both numbers are too low, mainly because Native Americans often consider suicide a taboo subject, because OMI can only investigate reservation deaths when tribal officials invite them to do so and because the Navajo Nation covers New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado, meaning a death in one state might be investigated by officials in another state, Paskus and Furlow write. Another problem is that death certificates have been known to wrongly classify Native Americans as Hispanics.

Studies have shown that Native American children are exposed to a high rate of alcohol and physical violence, and their parents are often divorced. They often have a close family member in jail and have suffered from neglect and sexual abuse, Paskus and Furlow write. A recent study of more than 1,300 Native Americans revealed that 29 percent were exposed to at least four of these experiences as children. But those numbers could be low because surveys were conducted in face-to-face interviews, instead of anonymously.

Coloradas Mangas, a Native American youth who speaks out against the silence and the stigma that surrounds youth suicide, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in 2010 about the need for a boost in mental health services and Medicaid approval for people who are referred to residential treatment centers, Paskus and Furlow write. He also said he "wished the tribe would build places where young people could hang out and have fun. And he called out Native people for their silence. Almost five years later, Mangas is still waiting." (Read more)

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