Native Youth Killing Themselves
June 30, 2005 — -- Lush, green rolling hills stretch across the nearly 3 million acres of the Cheyenne River reservation in Eagle Butte, S.D. But the bucolic setting is contradicted by an alarming rate of suicides among young people that has American Indian leaders looking for answers.
The reservation suffered a staggering 17 youth suicides in 2002-03, with an average of five attempts per week. In this tight-knit community, everyone knows at least one of the teenagers who tried -- or succeeded -- in taking their own lives.
"Some of these suicides were young men who had made a suicide pact with one another. They drew numbers, and decided to hang themselves in that order. One by one their families found these boys, often hanging in their homes, as their number came up," said Julie Garreau, executive director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project.
Overall, teens here are five to seven times more likely to commit suicide, according to Garreau.
"It's something that people outside Native communities don't seem to know about," Garreau said. "One senator I spoke with about this a few years ago was astounded and asked, 'Why don't we know about this?' It's a hard question. I think there is this invisible wall around the reservations where non-Native people just don't go. I certainly know what is going on outside the reservation and in other communities. I don't know why people don't know what is going on in my community."
According to recent studies, American-Indian teens are more than twice as likely as other teens to kill themselves. Statistics show older Native teens and young adults, 15 to 24 years old, are three times as likely to kill themselves. A study published last year in Trends in Indian Health stated that suicide has become a community problem as "suicide clusters" occur.
At a recent Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing, Garreau tried to explain what leads to the three to seven suicide attempts her community sees every week.
"Daily life on the reservation can be hard on our youth," she told the committee. "We see it in families so ravaged by alcoholism that what money is available is 'drunk up' rather than spent on food.… We witness older youth taking over the parenting of their younger siblings. As you know, opportunities are often limited in rural communities, and no one feels it more than teenagers."