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Preventing Native American Suicides

There is a disturbing trend among Native Americans – they tend to commit suicide at more than two times the rate of similarly aged whites.  In fact, among Native Americans, it is the second leading cause of death behind unintentional injuries according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

On the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana, five children killed themselves during the 2009-2010 school year at the Poplar Middle School – student population 160.  And 20 more 7th and 8th graders tried.

What is the cause of this problem?  There are many possible causes.  High unemployment – around 28 percent.  High poverty – 45 percent live below the poverty line, including over 50 percent of all children.  A Federal Health Team found that more than one third of the middle school students tested positive for sexually transmitted diseases, at least one-fifth of fifth graders drank alcohol weekly and 12 percent of high school girls are pregnant.  The dropout rate is 40 percent.  Mental health services are lacking, violent crime rages and people live in poor economic conditions in broken homes.

While these are societal problems, educators are forced to address them before learning can begin.  Because counselors are overwhelmed with paperwork and huge caseloads averaging 1/400, the City of  New York established a Coordinator of Student Activities in every high school.  I had the good fortune to have been selected as one of the COSA’s.  We saw our job as serving as a “third ear” to the students.  We felt that they needed to have an adult to listen (and not make value judgements) about their insecurities.  I would suggest that this concept be tried on Native American reservations.  The cost of saving a child’s life would be invaluable.

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