“Native American Youth Suicide Rates Are at Crisis Levels”—Huffington Post
“Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Struggles with Suicides Among Its Young” —New York Times
“Spate of Youth Suicides Shake Pine Ridge Reservation”—Indian Country Today
When an unusually high number of suicides occur within a couple of months on a Native American reservation like Pine Ridge, people pay attention for a couple of weeks.
For a while, the news media—local and national—may pick up the story. They’ll talk about how Native American youth are experiencing a deadly hopelessness and despair and how federal funding and support for mental health services and health care on reservations is minimal to non-existent.
They cite the truly tragic statistics.
- The suicide rate for Native American youth between the ages of 15-25 is 4 times the national average.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death for American Indian youth between 15-25
- Among Native Americans, 40 percent of those who die by suicide are between the ages of 15 and 24.
- The suicide rate for Native American females of all ages grew 89 percent from 1999 to 2014, the largest increase for any group.
Then the weeks pass and the media moves on, forgetting the devastating suffering they have seen and reported on. And Native young people are left in the same crushing poverty, family dysfunction, and historical trauma as before.
Native Hope Fellow, Tiny DeCory, Is Saving Lives Everyday
The barriers for Native American youth are tremendous. One of our Native Hope fellows, Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory, wakes up every day determined to help young people find their inner strength and overcome the challenges of isolation, poverty, trauma, and hopelessness.
24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Tiny keeps her cell phone on so that she’s available in a crisis. Tiny told the online blog, Voting Wars: “my everyday is keeping kids alive...I tell them, ‘Your struggle is real, but we can deal with it.’”
Tiny has been working on suicide prevention among Native youth for the last thirty years in official and unofficial capacities. She and Eileen Janis run the only suicide prevention and mental health outreach center on Pine Ridge Reservation. Their program—Be Excited About Reading (BEAR)—draws together children of all ages to support each other and to have fun with skits, music, and reading encouragement.
Sometimes kids just need a warm, safe place to hang out and food to eat.
Suicide Prevention in the Time of COVID-19
Physicians and mental health experts have been warning the American public about the coming mental health crisis due to the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today, the COVID-19 crisis has made life even more difficult for isolated tribal communities like those on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Nowadays, since BEAR cannot meet with their kids because of social distancing, they are concentrating all of their efforts on helping to feed the 52 communities and providing counseling for those in need.
Each day Tiny, Eileen, and many others pack meals and snacks from an outpouring of donations provided by non-profits, businesses, and individuals. They have turned her grandson’s business - Out of Bounds burger, fries and shakes – into a hub for food security. The group is working closely with the Pine Ridge Emergency Response Team to ensure no one goes hungry, but it is a tireless job.
In addition to food insecurity, many residents already suffer from high rates of mental and physical health issues: anxiety, depression, diabetes, asthma, along with kidney and heart disease. Because of these risk factors, Tiny says there is real fear among residents. The already isolated communities are even more isolated which creates a recipe for suicidal thoughts and reckless behavior.
“I have constant thoughts of how things would be if I’m not around. The people I care deeply about are already doing just fine with me...I find that both calming and dreadful. Thoughts of suicide are just normalized as a daily routine to motivate myself to be productive,” messages a 23-year-old Crow Creek tribal member, who has lost his job due to the COVID outbreak.
At the end of April, Tiny and Eileen lost one of their BEAR members to suicide. She was an 18-year-old athlete. “She had everything going for her,” shares Tiny, “I just don’t understand it. She was all set to play ball [basketball] in Arkansas this fall.” Her suicide confirms Tiny’s worst fear: “They want to die.” This is why her trips in the community are so important. The kids, the adults, and the elders need to know people care.
Native Hope Fellows Bring Hope and Transformation
Native Hope is committed to supporting the work of Native Americans like Tiny as they fight back against hopelessness and create positive change. Tiny is just one of the inspiring individuals who are 2020-2021 Native Hope Fellows. These leaders know firsthand what it is like to overcome the barriers set before them in order to thrive in the pride and dignity of Native American life.
With the tools, resources, and capital that come with a Native Hope Fellowship, people like Tiny can bring creativity and leadership to the challenges facing Indigenous peoples and their communities, while promoting a strong cultural identity.
We need your help in order to reach the kids and adults on reservations who just need to know that someone cares. Can you help Tiny DeCory and our Fellows bring hope?