By Anthony Fleg, Native Health Initiative
In the next days, as Governor Martinez’s desk piles high with legislation pleading for her signature, many advocates hope that Senate Bill 417 will get the precious signature and become a catalyst for increased support and resources to prevent youth suicide in American Indian communities.
Suicide is the third leading causes of death for youth in New Mexico, and the rate for AI youth is nearly twice as high as for other groups. In 2007, the New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey revealed that 34.8% of Native youth in grades 9 through 12 reported feeling sadness and hopelessness.
The additional factors of isolation, poverty, loss of cultural and individual identity, historical trauma, substance abuse, and self-esteem issues all play into the increased risk for our Native American youth to take their own lives. For instance, 40% of American Indian children live in poverty – more than 3 times higher than the rate for white children.
SB417, sponsored by Sen. Lynda Lovejoy, (D-Crownpoint), creates a statewide clearinghouse to provide technical assistance and support to facilitate collaboration and establish sustainable suicide prevention programs in Native communities. The clearinghouse will also provide culturally appropriate suicide intervention and post-event assistance to Native American children and their families.
Funding for the measure was removed due to the state’s budget shortfall, but state officials will use grant money to fund the preliminary work of the clearinghouse.
“The loss of a child shatters the family and community they leave behind. In tight-knit, rural communities the anger, pain and confusion can become unbearable,” says Regina Begay Roanhorse.
In many cases of youth suicide, there are stories of teachers, counselors, health practitioners and others who had similar concerns about the young person, often never knowing that others shared their concerns. This lack of communication often results in a failure to protect the young person adequately.
Roxane Spruce Bly, Director of the Bernalillo County Off-Reservation Native American Health Commission, comments, “These needless tragedies are preventable. By involving everyone in the community and collaborating with local, state, and federal agencies, communities can reduce and even eliminate suicide.”
Bly points to places where such models have proven the ability to prevent suicide. “Zuni Pueblo developed an integrated curriculum designed to build self-esteem and encourage youth to recognize stress or self-destructive behavior in their peers and intervene. For 18 years, there were no suicides in Zuni Pueblo’s schools.”
So far, the legislation has had little resistance, passing the NM Senate 37-0 on March 7th and the NM House of Representatives 64-0 on March 14th.
All of this makes mental health and American Indian advocates hopeful that with additional calls and visits to the fourth floor of the Roundhouse (where Governor Martinez’s office sits) the bill will soon become law.
The Governor’s signature on Senate Bill 417 could save the lives of Native children and position our state in the forefront of addressing a complex issue that has plagued communities for years.