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Native Americans, Alaska Natives see big spike in suicide rates

A wide-angle image of the exterior of a Native American boarding school. It is surrounded by grass and several trees.
Alisha Rivera
/
Flickr Creative Commons
Native American boarding schools, like Stewart Indian School (pictured) in Carson City, Nev., were created to strip Indigenous children of their culture. That historical trauma has contributed to rising suicide rates among Native Americans.

New data shows a dramatic rise in the U.S. suicide rate, especially for Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

From 2000 to 2020, the national rate grew 30%, according to an analysis from Pew Charitable Trusts. For Native Americans and Alaska Natives, the rate among women spiked 135%, and the rate among men jumped 92%.

A major factor is the historical trauma caused by colonization and the boarding school era, said Emily Edmunds Haroz, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Indigenous Health. For more than 150 years, hundreds of thousands of Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools created to strip them of their culture.

“If a parent is traumatized because of these experiences, and experiences those things and are not allowed to talk about it and not allowed to cope with it,” Haroz said, “they then pass along that trauma to their children and sort of this cycle perpetuates itself.”

She says there’s also a lack of funding for mental health care services in tribal communities. But efforts to bridge the gap are coming from the Indian Health Service, which is training tribal members to respond to people in crisis.

About half of all Americans who die by suicide interact with the health care system within a month of their death, said Kristen Mizzi Angelone, Pew’s project director of suicide risk reduction.

“We recognize this as a really crucial intervention point for health care providers to identify people who may be at risk of suicide,” Mizzi Angelone said. “And assess them for their level of risk, and then connect them to evidence-based care.”

In 2021, more than 48,000 people died by suicide across the nation. It was the 11th leading cause of death.

If you or someone you know needs help, call or text the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. 


This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.