Senator Udall Discusses Critical Need to Address Youth Suicide in Native Communities

At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs yesterday, U.S. Senator Tom Udall discussed the critical need to address the high rate of suicide among Native American youth. He questioned the acting director of the Indian Health Service, Tribal leaders and a Psychological and Developmental Sciences expert about improving desperately needed mental health services.

Udall highlighted some of the challenges facing New Mexico’s Tribal communities and cited recent research by the University of New Mexico (UNM) on risk factors that may place Native youth at increased risk for suicide. Last year, UNM researchers found that 20 percent of Native Americans from seven New Mexico Tribes had been exposed to four or more traumatic experiences as children, including alcohol and drug abuse, physical violence at home, neglect, abuse, divorced or separated parents, or the imprisonment of a close family member.

“The New Mexico Department of Health estimates that at least 201 Native American youth have died by suicide between 1999 and 2013,” Udall said in his opening remarks. “There has been evidence of ‘suicide clusters’ – a series of two or more suicides in a community over the course of a year or less – occurring on the Mescalero Apache reservation and the Eastern Navajo Nation. It is likely that the statistics are significantly undercounting these tragedies.”

Udall continued, “It is critical that we listen to our Native youth and remove the stigma on talking about suicide and trauma. We must create and sustain opportunities for them to learn the value of their cultures and identities. We need to make sure that they are connected to adequate mental health services. We must show them that their lives matter.” Udall also called for more federal resources for Indian Country and to expand programs that have shown positive results, like the youth suicide prevention intervention curriculum developed by Zuni Pueblo, with the help of experts and input from community members.

Nationally, suicide rates among Native Americans ages 15 to 24 are more than double the national average.

Below are Senator Udall’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

Thank you, Chairman Barrasso and Vice Chairman Tester, for holding this hearing today to discuss such a serious issue in Indian Country.

The loss of one child’s life is debilitating for families and for entire communities. In my home state of New Mexico, we have lost far too many young people in our Native communities.

The New Mexico Department of Health estimates that at least 201 Native American youth have died by suicide between 1999 and 2013. There has been evidence of “suicide clusters” – a series of two or more suicides in a community over the course of a year or less – occurring on the Mescalero Apache reservation and the Eastern Navajo Nation. It is likely that the statistics are significantly undercounting these tragedies.

There are also high concentrations of risk factors in New Mexico’s Native communities. Last year, in a survey of 1,300 Native Americans from seven different Tribal communities in the state, University of New Mexico researchers found that 29 percent had been exposed to four or more traumatic experiences as children – such as alcohol and drug abuse, physical violence at home, neglect, abuse, separated or divorced parents, or a close family member in prison.

It is critical that we listen to our Native youth and remove the stigma on talking about suicide and trauma. We must create and sustain opportunities for them to learn the value of their cultures and identities. We need to make sure that they are connected to adequate mental health services. We must show them that their lives matter.

I want to thank the witnesses for the work they are doing to address this crisis in their communities. I have some questions on what we can do as a Committee and what the federal government can do to provide appropriate support to help address this crisis.