White Mountain Apache Tribe decreases suicides, attempts

Native American youth are killing themselves at alarming rates, but one Arizona tribe is working to reverse these trends.

Nationally, suicide is prevalent in middle-age white men, but among Native Americans, 40 percent of those who die by suicide are between the ages of 15 and 24.

Along with non-Hispanic whites, the Native American whites the Native American population suicide rates are double compared to any other race. Suicide rates peak during adolescence and young adulthood in Native American communities, then decrease significantly after early adulthood.

Suicide deaths per 100,000 people by age. Data provided by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

“Youth suicide is the single biggest human loss a family or community can experience, “Erik Stegman, the communications associate for the Center for Native American Youth said. “It is destroying Native American and Alaska Native Communities.”

However, The White Mountain Apache Tribe has decreased suicide deaths and attempts due to a comprehensive suicide surveillance and prevention program on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation by teaming up with technical support from Johns Hopkins.

In 2001, the tribe mandated that all health and human service providers and tribal members report suicidal behavior to a centralized suicide prevention task force.

These behaviors include suicidal ideas and attempts deaths, as well as binge drinking, drug use and cutting, according to Novalene Goklish, the Senior Research Program Coordinator at John Hopkins Center for American Indian Health.

Suicide deaths per 100,000 people by race and ethnicity. Data provided by the American Suicide Prevention Foundation

“We are devastated but not broken by our problems of suicide,” Goklish said. “We see it as an obstacle we must overcome in order to share lessons with the world.”

According to data provided by the Center for Native American Youth, suicide is the second leading cause of death for native youth. The leading cause of death for Native youth is death by injuries and abuse.

The lives of the young Native Americans that are members of the nation’s 566 tribes have been tainted with poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, sexual assault, alcoholism and drug addiction.

“Youth with suicidal thoughts have reported relationship problems and social isolation,” Rocio Fonseca a guidance counselor at Arizona Center for Innovative Stress & Trauma Treatment said.

Goklish, said the death rates for youth in the White Mountain Apache tribe are 13 times the U.S. average.

“In the U.S., up to 500,000 persons a year require Emergency Department care as a result of suicide attempt,” Goklish said.

“Our reservation alone, with a population of 15,500 tribal members, our local Indian Health Service hospital treats more than 200 youth a year for suicide attempts,” she said.

Erika Bloom is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at erikabloom@email.arizona.edu 

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