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Suicide Among the Native American Population

Losing anyone to suicide is tragic.  It’s no secret that around the world, the number of people committing suicide are growing. What many people don’t know is that the rates of suicide among the American Indian/Alaska Natives (AI/AN) are the highest among all other groups in the United States.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, since 1999, the suicide rate in the U.S. has increased 33 percent. However, among Native American women, that rate has increased 139 percent. Among men, the rate has increased approximately 71 percent.

Why Suicide Rates Are Higher Among Native Americans

Those that have studied indigenous cultures in the U.S. state that there are various factors as to why the suicide rates are higher for Native Americans. Each individual case will vary based on specific factors, but common factors include:

Poverty – Living life in poverty, without enough money to provide a feeling of safety and security, is definitely one factor that can lead to overall well-being of indigenous populations. The American Community Survey report that one out of three Native Americans in the U.S. are living in poverty, bringing in around $23,000 per year. The long-term stress of not having enough money for housing, bills, food, etc. can certainly impact mental and/or emotional health in negative ways.

Historical Trauma – Another factor that impacts Native Americans is historical trauma that has been passed down from generation to generation. The internal wounds of one generation due to the stripping away of cultural traditions, if not resolved and healed, get passed down in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common among Native Americans as well. In fact, SAMHSA reports that the rate of PTSD is more than double what the general U.S. population experiences.

Unemployment – According to reports in 2019 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Indians and Alaska Natives had a higher rate of unemployment than the U.S. as a whole, at 6.6 percent. The country as a whole held at 3.9 percent. Not having adequate employment means struggling with having the means to pay for housing, food, and expense. This puts a lot of stress on families, which can cause depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. It can also lead to substance abuse.

Providing Better Care For Native Americans

How can we provide better care for Native American youth and adults so the rate of mental health disorders and suicide decrease?

Spread Awareness – The first thing we can do is spread awareness that this cultural population is suffering. Education institutions, mental health organizations, healthcare facilities, and social services should be well-informed as to how a larger number of Native Americans are struggling with mental health or addiction problems.

Awareness can lead to better screening and treatment for the varied mental health or substance abuse problems, as well as follow up.

Accessible Healthcare – Providing better, more accessible healthcare for the Native American population is important too.  Along with better access, those treating this population should be able to understand and honor to some degree their cultural beliefs and traditions. The fact that someone feels heard and understood for their cultural heritage can help foster healing.

Early Intervention – Providing early intervention for those who are beginning to show signs of mental health or addiction issues can help tremendously.  After all, it’s easier to treat a scratch than a gaping wound.  It would be helpful if schools and healthcare adopt screening for Native Americans to catch issues early. And, treat the underlying issues rather than simply medicating symptoms.

Integrate Native American Spiritual Practices – Native Americans are known for their unique approach to navigating life via various healing and spiritual practices. Healthcare or substance abuse rehabs ought to keep this in mind, bringing in culturally relevant healers or Elders to assist those in need.

Addressing Mental Health and/or Substance Abuse

SAMSHA states that approximately 90 percent of those who commit suicide struggled with a mental health or substance abuse disorder. Some were diagnosed and others were not. In addition, about 90 percent on Native Americans who die by suicide were either drinking or taking drugs at the time of death.

This is disheartening, especially since there are many helpful mental health practitioners and substance abuse rehabs that can help treat addiction and mental health disorders.  

Watch For Warning Signs of Suicide: Get Treatment

Whether you identify as Native American or not, it’s helpful to learn the warning signs of suicide, and have open and honest discussions with others. Struggling with substance abuse or addiction is one warning sign that should not be ignored.  If someone is caught up in addiction, it typically means they’re struggling with intense, overwhelming inner pain.

The good news is that there is hope for healing that pain, as well as overcoming addiction. It may take seeing a therapist or entering an addiction recovery program. Here at Sunrise Native Recovery, we offer culturally relevant substance abuse treatment to Native Americans struggling with addiction and/or mental health problems. We’re passionate about helping the Native community get free from inner pain, learn to live without self-medicating, and create a better life.

If you’re concerned about someone, sit down and have a real heart to heart. Let them know that help is available, and that you are there to encourage and support them however they need. Sometimes it’s just that personal touch and non-judgmental attitude that can help a person take a step toward getting professional help.

Resources for National Suicide Prevention

If you are having suicidal thoughts or a loved one is, you have various options. You may call 911 for immediate assistance. You may also call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text NAMI to 741-741.

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