Native American Teen Suicide Crisis


with Nikki Pitre of the Center for Native American Youth


Nov 02, 2018

For Native American adolescents and young adults, suicide is the second leading cause of death, a rate more than triple the national average.

Nikki Pitre with the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute provides insight into the statistics, and discusses efforts to engage Native youth and reverse this trend.

Hosted by: Ellee Pai Hong Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Hong: Suicide rates among Native American teens are 3.5 times higher than the general population, making suicide the second-leading cause of death among Native youth. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Ellee Pai Hong. With me to discuss efforts to promote the health, well-being, and engagement of Native American youth is Nikki Pitre, associate director of the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. Nikki, thank you so much for being here.

Pitre: Thank you.

Hong: Looking at the numbers, they´re astounding. Why are the rates so high?

Pitre: The rates are high for Native youth suicide because there´s a lot of intergenerational trauma that our youth face that are a result of something, maybe, that their ancestors had faced. There´s also geographic isolation within tribal communities. The reservations are just kind of located in a place where there´s not a lot of opportunity. Because of that, there´s drug and alcohol a lot in the families and in the homes, and I think, overall, I know the lack of awareness of how to cope with either intergenerational trauma, with addiction, or just how to cope with any issue that they may be facing, there´s no resour-- there´s minimal resources available for them.

Hong: You know, I was reading up on this topic preparing for this segment, and I read some tribes are just too exhausted to grieve ´cause it happens so often, but the stats we gave might actually be higher because not all of them get reported properly.

Pitre: That´s true. Yeah, I think how I was -- I guess I was noting earlier that it can be an epidemic. So, it´s almost like a trend, which is horrible to say, but it´s so true. If one youth in a community does it, oftentimes it will follow with multiple youths committing suicide not too long after.

Hong: And this is something that hits close to home for you, as well. You have personal experience.

Pitre: Yes, growing up, I´ve had family members, cousins, commit suicide. A lot of members in our community have ended their life too soon.

Hong: So what needs to be done? Is this a trend that can be reversed?

Pitre: That´s something that the Center for Native American Youth is working on. Founded in 2011 by Senator Byron Dorgan from North Dakota, he spent time working on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and was completely inspired by the resiliency that Native youth have, so he founded the Center for Native American Youth, focusing mainly on suicide prevention. So we´ve created a program inspired by a President Obama initiative called Champions for Change, where we highlight Native youth, five annually, who are doing positive work to make positive change in their community. Several of them have chosen youth suicide prevention as a focus, and so we work to just highlight them and provide them as many resources as possible as they implement their initiatives.

Hong: And they really go back into their own communities and preach what they learn to their fellow students.

Pitre: Yes, yep, so, we give them, like, curriculum, leadership development, advocacy training, they meet with their senators, and then from there, they go back into their communities because that´s where the work needs to happen, is at home, and so we are just kind of there to support them as much as possible. So, we have Champions for Change at the national level, which is five a year, and recognizing that five is simply not enough. We have created a Champions for Change technical assistance program. We´re in the beginning stages. We have worked with two tribes so far, the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation and also the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara in Fort Berthold, North Dakota. And several of those youth are working on suicide prevention because they´ve seen it first-hand in their high schools. They´ve been impacted, and so, realizing that they don´t want their community to suffer anymore, they´re dedicated to making the change they need to.

Hong: I´m sure having a role model within their communities is a huge help to these kids, but what else needs to be done to actually make a significant impact and see a reduction in those numbers?

Pitre: Yeah, I´m happy that you asked that. So, role models is really key, and I think that that´s exactly what our Champions for Change program does, is we give Native youth role models to look up to, whether they´re the Champions for Change at the national level or at the local level. I think also providing more resources, whether it´s getting involved in hosting basketball camps or something like that. I know that in Fort Berthold they have high schools lock-ins, or maybe they´re called lock-downs, where youth can go stay the night, hang out together, be drug-and-alcohol free, be amongst each other, just activities like that to kind of get them involved in doing just fun activities that maybe you had access to growing up, I think, would be really key. Also, having better resources within our hospitals, being able to give them opportunities to seek out guidance or help if they need help, because a lot of times, they don´t have access to that.

Hong: And oftentimes, is it just having somebody that you know cares about you?

Pitre: Yeah, that´s -- I think that´s also really key, is, oftentimes, you kind of get caught up in whatever trauma you´re facing that you don´t remember that people care about you and that you´re loved, and that´s one thing that I´m truly dedicated to in my work at CNAY is empowering our youth and letting them know that they matter and that they´re loved and that, you know, we always have their back no matter what.

Hong: Well, on that note, Nikki, thank you so much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Pitre: Thank you.

Hong: And thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit I´m Ellee Pai Hong.

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