February 26, 2009

Udall: Indian Country Youth Suicide Rates Demand Attention, Help

WASHINGTON - Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, D-N.M., participated in a hearing to examine the overwhelming frequency of youth suicide in Indian Country. The rate of suicide among American Indian and Alaskan Native population is 70 percent higher than the general United States population, with the incidence of youth suicides reaching epidemic proportions. New Mexico, which has the fifth highest Native American population in the country, also has the seventh highest rate of suicide for youth from ages of 10 to 24-years-old.


"The suicide rates among our Native youth are devastating and we must continue to do everything possible to help prevent this vicious cycle," said Udall. "Tribal members must have access to support systems that are culturally sensitive and flexible to their needs."


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the incidence of suicide is highest among Indian youth in American Indian and Alaska Native communities. Between the ages of 10 and 24, American Indian and Alaska Native youth have the highest suicide rate of any adolescent population. Native American suicide rates between the ages of 15 and 34 are more than two times higher than the national average for the comparable age group. Within the American Indian youth population, males account for up to five times more suicides than females. The rate of suicide among American Indian and Alaska Native male youth is two to four times higher than males in any other racial groups and up to eleven times higher than females in other racial groups.


Zuni Tribe member and Director of the Center for Lifelong Education, Hayes Lewis, testified before the committee at the invitation of Udall. Hayes, who previously served as the Superintendent for Zuni schools, described the effectiveness of suicide prevention efforts.


"It is a very fragile situation that always has to be reinforced in a number of ways," said Lewis of his work on suicide prevention. "Youth suicide is preventable," he continued.


Based on his work and success fighting youth suicide in Indian Country, Lewis asked the committee to help strengthen every tribe's capacity to address the health and safety of youth in a holistic manner.


"Until we move to a discussion about the collective tribal loss represented by a single suicide, we will not fully engage the reality that our communities need to be healed in many ways. In this realization we then may find the courage to discuss openly and respectfully the value that a single life represents to the whole, and that self-inflicted death is not acceptable," Lewis testified.


At today's hearing, the landmark legislation known as the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act was lauded as an important step in helping to address youth suicides. As a member of the House of Representatives, Udall cosponsored and fought for funding for the legislation, named in honor of Udall's 21-year-old relative and son of Udall's cousin, former Oregon Senator Gordon Smith. The legislation helps states, tribes and higher education institutions develop and put in place methods and strategies to reduce suicide.


"We must strive to ensure that youth of every ethnicity and background know that their lives are valuable," said Udall. "They deserve the support to know that they are not alone and there are people in their communities to turn to for help," said Udall.


Udall also said that he supports the $600 million increase in President Obama's Fiscal Year 2010 budget proposal, which came out today, to support Indian Health Services, a program that has been severely underfunded through the years.