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High teen suicide rates raise alarm on reservations

Published: Wednesday, March 12 2014 11:40 p.m. MDT

An alarming number of young Native Americans are taking their own lives — more than three times the national average, and up to 10 times on some reservations.

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The Justice Department recently created a national task force to look at violence and its impact on American Indian and Alaska native children. In one of the broadest studies done on the topic, officials are alarmed to find high suicide rates among teens, which are more than three times the national average, and 10 times on some reservations.

Some task force officials consider this an outcome of what they call "pervasive despair." In a thorough Washington Post report on the subject by Sari Horwitz, Theresa M. Pouley, the chief judge of the Tulalip Tribal Court in Washington state and a member of the Indian Law and Order Commission, lists many disadvantages that she sees for tribal youths.

One quarter of Indian children live in poverty, she says, versus 13 percent nationwide. Their substance-abuse rates are higher, and they are twice as likely as other races to die before the age of 24, and they have two times the rate of abuse and neglect.

"Their experience with post-traumatic stress disorder rivals the rates of returning veterans from Afghanistan," Pouley says.

The trauma spans generations, according to Sarah Kastelic, deputy director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, who spoke at the first hearing of the task force. Experts call this “historical trauma.”

Historical trauma for native children began when the federal government tried to assimilate tribes by forcibly placing children in boarding schools far from their homes and families, where those children were isolated and often victim to widespread sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Hundreds of thousands of children were sent to these boarding schools from the late 1800s until the schools finally closed in the 1970s.

Previously, teen suicide was virtually unheard of among tribes when traditional child-rearing fluorished and the community provided a safeguard, Kastelic told the Post.

“Child maltreatment was rarely a problem,” said Kastelic, a member of the native village of Ouzinkie in Alaska, “because of these traditional beliefs and a natural safety net.”

For the time being, the task force is gathering information and listening to tribal leaders around the country, and will not make a final recommendations on ways to address violence and suicide until the fall.

“We know that the road to involvement in the juvenile justice system is often paved by experiences of victimization and trauma,” member of the task force and Associate Attorney General Tony West told the Washington Post. “We have a lot of work to do. There are too many young people in Indian country who don’t see a future for themselves, who have lost all hope.”

Email: laneanderson@deseretnews.com

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