Native youth suicide rates are 2.5 times the national average and account for 75 percent of deaths among American native youth age 12-20.
This data from the Aspen Institute shows suicide is the second leading cause of death, after deaths in result of injuries and violence, for Native American youth, according to the institute’s Center for Native American Youth.
The lack of resources and conversation about suicide has garnered a new focus in increasing initiatives to help counter this issue among tribal nations.
Clay Havier, Sells district youth representative has been a Tohono O’odham Nation youth council member for three years. The youth council, which gathers 12 youth representatives from each district, has been a big part of his life he said by helping him get through high school and graduate, while staying out of trouble.
These biweekly meetings have become a new platform for native youth to bring awareness to the issues facing their peers within their own communities. One issue that Havier said he is focused on within his community is suicide among youth.
“I do talk to the youth about suicide because myself I was at a suicide stage before I joined the youth council. And the youth council helped me stray away from it.”
Havier said one of the issues is that youth often do not know whom to turn to when they need help.
“Oftentimes, a lot of the adults get after them if they do talk about suicide, so I guess they would like to hear it from a youth’s perspective,” Havier said. “When I was approached, I was approached by the representative before me. He saw that I was very depressed so he asked me to come out to a youth council meeting and interact with the youth council that help me realize that the youth council is good step in someone’s life.”
Erin Bailey, the executive director for the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute, said that they try to work closely with tribal leaders to be an ally of support for them.
“Young people and tribal leaders are working valiantly but they are hung up in the lack of resources,” Bailey said.
Part of this Bailey said is figuring out how to create initiatives to make these resources more accessible, while acknowledging the tremendous diversity across the communities.
“There’s a long history of broken promises and historical trauma. This is about systems change and working from the ground up,” Bailey said.
Understanding the multitude of factors that are involved is what Michelle Kahn-John, assistant professor of nursing at the University of Arizona, said is important in addressing this issue.
“It requires an innovative approach to ask the teens what might be the most helpful and where they will feel the most safe to express their needs.”
Kahn-John, who has worked in the field of Native American health for 20 years as a psychiatric and mental health nurse, said the key in addressing the high suicide rate is the youth.
“We are missing the mark…we need to become better in talking and understanding with the youth,” said Kahn-John.
Brandi Espinoza, Chukut Kuk district youth representative and the president of the Tohono O’odham Nation Youth Council, said she gets a sense of adrenaline rush by being able to go out and advocate for the people who can’t speak out or as she phrases it, “the quiet ones.”
“Youth here are very quiet, they go to different places and they just feel like they don’t belong,” Espinoza said. “I have felt like that and now I feel like I speak for them.”
Understanding the chronic underfunding of behavioral health, especially among tribal nations, is one of the factors that help push for the creation by President Obama of the Generation Indigenous or Gen I initiative last December.
These series of initiatives are geared to help improve the lives and opportunities for Native youth and help remove the barriers towards success, according to the White House fact sheet.
Part of this initiative was the release of the Native Youth Report last December that includes federal efforts to help strengthen and expand efforts that target suicide prevention, while highlighting the importance of having a well-prepared behavioral workforce and access to these health services.
“I think that with attention from the White House, we have a unique leverage to raise awareness,” Bailey said. “It’s really hopeful to expand these programs and help.”
Vanessa Bustos, prevention specialist with the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the Centered Spirit Program, said an expansion of programs would be helpful. She said in Guadalupe where she works, there is no other suicide prevention program being done.
“The idea of it [suicide] being taboo makes it more difficult,” Bustos said who said that this can create new challenges in developing programs.
The Centered Spirit Program, according to Bustos, helps connect individuals to both professional and culturally compatible behavioral health services, while promoting healing, personal growth and healthy living for the individual, family and community.
Finding ways to better communicate with youth and their communities is one step, according to Bailey that will help build a platform to help make those connections and resources more accessible to those communities.
“We have to find a really proactive way to reach out and engage native young people and help advocate and support the programs that they feel are best supporting their people,” Bailey said.
Razanne Chatila is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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