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Indian Suicides Higher

By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
      WASHINGTON — Native American teenagers are more than three times as likely to commit suicide as teens in the general population, and poverty, substance abuse and a lack of treatment are key reasons why, according to witnesses at a congressional hearing Thursday.
       The Senate Indian Affairs Committee invited experts from around the country — including New Mexico — to offer insights into the grim suicide statistics and offer suggestions on how to combat the problem. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., is a member of the committee and attended the hearing.
       According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between the ages of 10 and 24, American Indian and Alaska Native youth have the highest suicide rate of any adolescent and young population. Suicide rates between the ages of 15 and 34 are more than two times higher than the national average for the comparable age group.
       New Mexico, which has the fifth highest Native American population in the country, has the seventh-highest rate of suicide among the states for youth from ages 10 to 24.
       Hayes A. Lewis, a member of the Zuni tribe and an administrator at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, encouraged Indian people, who have traditionally been reluctant to discuss suicide and the devastation it wreaks on families, to talk about it.
       “Unless we own the problem, nothing will happen,” Lewis told the committee. “In a tribal community, you're told you can't talk about death because it will bring a death, but if we don't talk about death, how will we help the living?”
       Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Indian communities are desperately short on counselors who can help young Native Americans deal with their problems before they become seemingly insurmountable.
       “There is not really accessible treatment by qualified professionals, and that is something we have to fix,” said Reid, whose father committed suicide at the age of 60.
       The 2010 budget blueprint unveiled by President Barack Obama on Thursday contained $4 billion for Bureau of Indian Affairs, up $600 million from current year funding. Some of that money could be used on suicide prevention programs, committee members suggested.
       “That's a good sign — a very good sign,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee.
       Udall said there is a “growing awareness” of the suicide problem in Indian Country and that could help free up at least some money in Congress to combat the problem.
       “We need to make sure the dollars are there to deal with this,” Udall said.
       





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