Monday, November 10, 2014

Native Americans and Suicide

By Arshya Vahabzadeh, MD & Brad Zehring, DO

Mental illness does not discriminate - it affects every age, sex, religion, and ethnic group.

The Indian Health Service conducted a study in 2008 that noted that the rate of suicide for American Indians and Alaska Natives is higher than any ethnic group within the United States. The study reported that suicide in these populations is up to 70% higher, especially in ages 10 to 24. Sadly, this statistic is not decreasing. Mental health professionals and society need to recognize the etiology of the despair that leads to suicide so that treatment and appropriate allocation of resources can be made.

The statistics are alarming, but possibly more alarming is the silence around this tragedy. Since suicide is taboo on most reservations - there are reports that a death by suicide often is not reported or legal authorities classify it as an accident. Due to the silence and misrepresentation, the numbers could be even greater.

It is important to break the silence on the troubling trends within Native American reservations. Native Americans must be willing to discuss their stressors and be open to getting education necessary to cope, deal, and treat their stressors. Mental Health professionals must be willing to understand their culture and adapt. Alex Crosby, MD, MPH, medical epidemiologist of the CDC has been recorded as saying that Native American suicide is so prevalent that it has become acceptable practice when tensions build up. Suicide should never be an acceptable option.

Reasons for troubling trends among Native Americans
There are a lot of thoughts on why mental illness and suicide have increased in the Native American population. There has been a lot of discussion of generational trauma due to the disempowerment and oppression of Native Americans and Alaska Natives. It has been discussed that this has caused adverse childhood experiences that lead to high rates of depression and other mental illness that are precursors to suicide.

While disempowerment and oppression could very well be contributing factors - poverty seems to be a growing problem on reservations. Poverty tends to put stress on educational standards decreasing the educational opportunities for those on the reservation – leading to a viscous cycle. There are few jobs on the reservation causing adolescents and young adults to leave their families and move to where there are jobs. However, parents age and get ill causing tension between the traditional Native American family structures where youth takes care of the elderly and providing for the immediate family.

In addition to poverty, substance abuse is a big problem on the reservation. Substance abuse can affect mood, often negatively, which increases the tension and is a risk factor for suicide. Domestic violence and sexual assault are also known problems on the reservation. These stressors have led to unstable environments for children growing up. Add untreated mental illness to the mix and it is easy to see how hopelessness and despair thrive often leading to the belief that suicide is the only way out.

The Way Forward
Recently, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention joined a Native American Mental Health panel sponsored by Congressional Native American Caucus and Center for Native American Youth. The panel focused on ways of improving mental health resources and suicide prevention. The IHS and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) collaborated on targeted suicide prevention programs. The IHS established the Suicide Prevention Initiative and SAMHSA provided funding to the IHS to address youth suicide and provide suicide prevention for high-risk populations.

As we move forward as Mental Health professionals, it will be important to continue to collaborate with the Native American population, especially with Mental Health professionals with experience with the population and their culture. Understanding their culture and etiology of stressors will go a long way in providing the appropriate resources and treatment.
Resources for Help
In the US:
·         Suicide help
·         1-800-273-TALK

Outside the US:
·         International Association of Suicide Prevention (IASP)