Today is World Suicide Prevention Day and I wanted to make this post to raise awareness. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages ten and thirty-four, the impacts are wide reaching and yet this is hardly talked about. For these reasons, I believe it is extra important that we try to better understand underlying issues and work to destigmatize the topic. Furthermore, it is crucial to recognize the mental health disparities at play—these statistics are not created equal.
In 2019, the CDC reported that American Indians and Alaskan Natives had a 60% higher suicide risk compared to the general population, and suicide rates amongst AI/AN youth are six times higher than that of whites of a similar age… This is what I mean when I say ‘mental health disparities.’ Mental healthcare services produce highly varied outcomes and certainly do not reach everyone; these differences in healthcare adversely impact marginalized populations. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention and The National Institute for mental health have programs which prioritize suicide prevention amongst these populations and are conducting some research into why such disparities exist.
A program that the CDC prepared for tribal suicide prevention discusses that exposure to violence increases one’s risk of considering or attempting suicide. Suicide is complex, even more so amongst Native American groups, but the connection between violence and suicide is revealing. The people that are most vulnerable to suicide are the same people who have been violently pushed out of place. It is the same people who are more likely to be assaulted, raped, or murdered than any other ethnic group in the nation.
The reason Native Americans and Alaskan Natives are more vulnerable to these issues goes all the way back to the colonization of America, which came with genocide and forced assimilation for Indigenous peoples. From the beginning of the relationship, Native Americans were thought of as ‘sub-human’ by European settlers and they were treated accordingly. Sadly, the damage of this ideology persists today as it is solidified and reinforced through our everyday uses of symbols and popular discourse. Some examples being the sports team formally called the “Redskins,” or white people claiming they are part Native, or capitalistic agendas that seek to develop land for monetary gain…all things that tip the flow of power (money, resources, and sense of belonging) in favor of one side.
While there are more laws protecting Native Americans now, the dehumanizing ideology that took away their voices in the first place still prevails and reveals itself through these alarming statistics and stories. For example, the issue of missing women in Native American communities is at crisis level; Native American women are more likely to be assaulted, murdered, or go missing than women of any other ethnicity. This is connected to mobility; not being able to leave the reservation without fear for your life equates to being paralyzed and disempowered. It also relates to intersectionality as we see the layers of identity—in this case “native” and “woman”– carry different qualities of oppression…but I also want to point out that these layers of identity carry different qualities of experience in general, which means unique perspectives that will hopefully be celebrated and empowered more as we progress into the future.
Suicide Prevention?? Decolonization??
Perhaps your head spinning a tad, so lets zoom in to what we can do as individuals.
We begin by making space for stories we have not heard. While it is NOT the responsibility of white or privileged people to speak for Native peoples or other marginalized groups, it is our responsibility to effectively work with them to document their stories and protect their heritage.
AND it is not just Native peoples!! There are countless groups of people who have been put at a disadvantage in this country because of a general failure to make space for diverse and often challenging stories. As a result, these various underrepresented groups are also left quite vulnerable to healthcare disparities. For example, Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are at a higher risk of attempting suicide than their straight peers. Similarly, people who are transgender are twelve times more likely to attempt suicide compared to the general population. Overall, men are more likely to follow through with their attempts..
Feminism. is. for. everyone.
It doesn’t matter who you are, our brothers and sisters are literally dying from despair.
Lastly, I would like to prescribe a tall glass of radical self-love. Author of, “Your Body is Not an Apology,” Sonya Renee Taylor explains how investing in loving yourself can be a rather powerful political act. She describes the patriarchy as a ladder of bodily hierarchy and suggest that, “Radical self-love invites us to divest from the ladder…When I don’t need the ladder to assess my sense of worthiness, of enoughness, of inherent divinity, when I don’t need that ladder, because I understand it as my birth right, I understand it as how I arrived on the planet, I understand it as my own unique form of natural intelligence, then the ladder is of no use.” This “ladder” of systemic oppression thrives off of our fear, shame, self-hatred, and isolation. So, it is essential that we collectively heal together in order to dismantle these power geometries that are actively keeping people down. Sonya goes on to share that we need to start by making peace with difference, peace with not understanding, and peace with our own bodies. Learning how to hold space for ourselves in these ways is what allows us to hold space for others.
If you are currently reading this as a JMU student, I highly encourage you to explore some of the mental health resources that the counseling center on campus has to offer. They provide various treatment programs and services to address mental health and interpersonal concerns of all kinds. Individual and group counseling, workshops, wilderness therapy retreats, sexual trauma empowerment, self-care spaces, and more. Visit jmu.edu/counselingctr/resources to explore supportive options. You may be surprised to find that they offer support in a way you didn’t even know you needed! Plus, familiarizing yourself with these resources can help you to be a guiding light for someone else in need 🙂
- Mental health by the numbers. NAMI. (2021, March). Retrieved September 10, 2021, from https://nami.org/mhstats.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, February 24). Tribal suicide prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved September 10, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/suicide/programs/tribal/index.html.
- Centers for American Indian & Alaska Native Health. University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus. (n.d.). Retrieved September 10, 2021, from https://coloradosph.cuanschutz.edu/research-and-practice/centers-programs/caianh/projects/suicide-prevention-hub.
- Gordon, J. (2020, January 29). Addressing disparities: Advancing mental health care for all americans. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved September 10, 2021, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/messages/2020/addressing-disparities-advancing-mental-health-care-for-all-americans.
- Smith, A. (2005). Native American feminism, sovereignty, and social change. Feminist Studies, 31(1), 116-132. Day, M. (2016, July 5).
- No, you are not part Cherokee. Retrieved from https://timeline.com/part-cherokee-elizabeth-warren-cf6be035967e
- Riggs, C. R. (2017, August 10). Confronting Cultural Imperialism in Native American Archaeology. Retrieved from https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/native-americanarchaeology/
- AIAN Violence Against Women. (2020, August 29). Retrieved from https://crihb.org/
- Waxman, O. B. (2018, November 23). The Overlooked Story of Native Americans in World War I. Retrieved from https://time.com/5459439/american-indians-wwi/