MARK ANTHONY ROLO: A look at the scourge of suicide

Report shows rate increased by 60 percent since 1999

By MARK ANTHONY ROLO
Guest Columnist

(TNS) Of all the ills plaguing American Indian communities, what hits home the hardest is the scourge of suicide.

The rate of suicide in Indian country has increased by at least 60 percent since 1999, according to a newly released report by the National Center for Health Statistics. In the past 15 years, suicide among Native women rose 89 percent.

Moreover, the study concludes that the actual number of American Indian suicides “may be underreported by 30 percent.”

For years, Indian country has suffered the highest suicide rates among all racial or ethnic groups in the nation. Poverty, violence and alcoholism are only a few of the constant contributing factors that drive so many Native people to despair.

Generations of abuse in the forms of racism, loss of indigenous languages and the devaluing of ancient traditions, culture and spirituality have had a devastating impact on American Indian dignity and self worth.

Suicide is more than a public health issue for Indian country. It is a monetary issue. American Indian nations are losing the battle to save their people’s lives because there simply are not enough mental health dollars available to effectively treat the problem.

The American Indian health care system is shamefully underfunded because the federal government has refused to fully honor Indian treaties.

Tribes signed away rights to large amounts of land and access to natural resources in exchange for promised health care, education and other needed services. But the U.S. government broke those promises long ago and continues to shatter them today.

Every budget cycle, Congress consistently underfunds even basic health care services for American Indians.

It is no wonder American Indians have some of the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and mental illness in the country. The few dollars that do make it to tribal hospitals and clinics are spent on triage and other crisis treatment, not mental health services.

In Canada, indigenous people face many of the same health challenges as American Indians. Recently, a number of First Nations people have started occupying federal buildings in order to call attention to the high suicide rate of their young people.

It has been decades since American Indian activists caravanned to Washington, D.C., in what was dubbed the Trail of Broken Treaties. Those activists took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in protest of the U.S. government’s mistreatment of Native people. Significant Indian federal policy was changed because of that occupation.

For American Indians, the right to decent health care is long overdue. But the federal government shows no interest in mending its broken treaties with tribes. Perhaps it’s time for Native people to pay another visit to the nation’s capital.

Mark Anthony Rolo is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. He is the author of the memoir, “My Mother Is Now Earth.” He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues. Readers may email the author at pmproj@progressive.org or visit www.progressive.org

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