Suicide Rates Among Native American Adolescents Have Reached 'Crisis Level': CDC

Native Americans
Girls weave baskets at the annual traditional agave roast at the Malki Museum on the Morongo Indian Reservation near Banning, California, April 11, 2015. David McNew/AFP/Getty Images)

There is a suicide crisis among Native American adolescents, according to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics (CDC).

Up until now, the most at-risk population for suicide was middle-aged white men. But for Native Americans, suicide looks very different; 40 percent of those who commit suicide within this community are between the ages of 15 and 24, the CDC said. Native Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 also experience higher rates of suicide, as well as higher rates than the general population. While the CDC's report does highlight the breadth of ethnic disparities among those who commit suicide, it seems to confirm an overall, unfortunate trend: suicide among adolescents is alarmingly high, and needs immediate attention.

"We always focus on non-Hispanic white males in particular, because they do represent the vast bulk of the problem,” lead researcher and statistician Arialdi Miniño told The Huffington Post. “But it seems to me that the American Indians are particularly vulnerable here as a group. I don't know if that is always represented and taken into account."

HuffPo cited that the report was first a project for two college-aged interns interested in knowing the rates of suicide among people close to their age. By examining adolescents specifically, while also including data on American Indians/Alaskan Natives (AIAN) — a group typically left out when conducting these analyses — the pair discovered the shocking statistics plaguing many Native American communities in the U.S.

Miniño explains that because data on Native American deaths are not always accurate, reporting on this community is often neglected. For example, individuals who regard themselves as Native American may not have this identification listed on their death certificate. As a result,  Miniño and the research team believe that the number on their report may be an underestimation. 

Based on these findings, Dana Alonzo, the director of the suicide prevention research program at Columbia University, is hopeful that the CDC will continue to report on this age group, specifically in Native American communities in order to help guide future interventions.

“We've had very limited success in reducing the rate of suicides in the U.S. that occur each year,” she said. “The better we can be at knowing who to target, the more likely we will be to have an impact.”

That said, the report noted that suicide rates may not be consistent among different tribes; for instance, suicide rates among the youth of one tribe may be three times higher than the national average, while another tribe may see rates ten times higher than the average. 

As to why suicide rates are so high among the youth in these communities, there are several complex factors at play. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that 90 percent of suicides can be attributed to treatable mental illnesses. But within AIAN communities, treatment is not often easily accessible. 

This has mostly to do with the fact that the Indian Health Services department, which serves over 2.2. million AIAN, is still underfunded. Between 2006 and 2015, the budget did reportedly increase by 56 percent, but this really only amounts to $3,000 spent on the healthcare of one person versus the $8,000 spent on the general population. 

AIAN communities tend to experience higher rates of other health issues, the CDC added; Native Americans have higher instances of death related to alcohol, diabetes, and tuberculosis. Children also appear to be at twice the risk of abuse and neglect, while the community also sees the highest rate of intimate partner violence in the U.S. So it stands to reason that this population may be more susceptible to depression, a leading cause of suicide.

AIAN communities are, however, trying to make a change: There are movements in place to better prosecute non-Indians for crimes committed on reservations, along with confronting bullying and sexual abuse. But, as the CDC suggests, more must still be done to help reduce crisis level suicide rates.

Source: Jiang C, Mitran A, Ni H, et al. Racial and Gender Disparities in Suicide Among Young Adults Age 18-24: United States, 2009-2013. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2015.

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