How Native American Culture Helps Fight Youth Suicide

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Data shows that suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2020 alone, nearly 46,000 Americans died by suicide.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — September is Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month. According to the National Mental Illness Alliance, this is a month to “raise awareness of this stigmatized and often taboo subject. We use this month to change public perception, spread hope and share lifesaving information with those affected by suicide.

Data shows that suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2020 alone, nearly 46,000 Americans died by suicide, and in the same year there were approximately 1.2 million suicide attempts.

It’s no secret that suicide impacts all cultures, races, ethnicities and lifestyles.

According to Julie Fuentes, care coordination supervisor at the Sacramento Native American Health Center, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young Native Americans between the ages of 10 and 20.

“We also know that suicide rates among Native American adults are about 20 percent higher than those of other ethnic groups, but we also know that culture has always been a resilience factor in Native American communities,” Fuentes said.

An article published by the National Indian Council on Aging, Inc. in 2019 noted the high suicide trend in Indian County, also alluding to cultural impacts.

Culture and suicide prevention

“Suicide prevention is important to me because being a young person in today’s generation is quite difficult,” said Pinoleville Pomo Nation member Angelina Hinojosa.

ABC10 previously spoke with Angelina last year on the subject of Native American growth. Then (and even to this day), she continues to be one of the many voices of Native American youth in Sacramento.

“This month is important, even though we spread this word all the time, like what is suicide prevention? What does mental health look like? This month is important because we want to focus on who are our indigenous young people who need this support, who need this help,” she said.

One of the things that helped Angelina and what Julie foreshadowed was the centralization of culture in the Native American community.

“Culture is definitely what brings me back and leads me (to say) OK, I’m not supposed to do these things, (it’s) what kept me alive, I would say,” Angelina said. “Even if it’s a heavy thing to say, for me it’s true. Culture is what drives me, whether it’s praying or going to a weekend ceremony or talking to my elders.

Julie elaborated on this subject by emphasizing that culture is also a factor of resilience.

“Indigenous community culture has always been a factor of resilience in Native American communities,” she said. “Research indicates that culture is significantly linked to positive mental health and has been effective in improving community outcomes.”

Watch below as Julie explains the connection between culture and positive mental health.

She also spoke of the growing support from the Native American youth community to break the stigma of remaining silent on mental health and the topic of suicide.

“One of our leaders recently told me something really important, which is that our young people are changing…changing the narrative around mental health and actively de-stigmatizing mental health and in regular conversations talking openly “, Julie said. “They identify feelings and boundaries. They teach us as parents and community by speaking this crazy vocabulary and setting these boundaries and talking openly and honestly about suicide and depression.”

Historical trauma in the Native American community

When discussing mental health, suicide, or any other health issue in the Native American community, it is important to note and acknowledge the historical trauma that Indian Country has faced.

According to the National Indian Council on Aging, Inc., “Historic disenfranchisement through genocide and institutional racism has resulted in American Indians and Alaska Natives experience poorer health and socioeconomic outcomes. These social determinants of health intersect to create a detrimental situation for the physical and mental health of Indian communities. Cultural disconnect, alienation, and pressure to assimilate all contribute to higher suicide rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Leticia Aguilar; who holds a number of titles, including the director of Native Dads Network, founder of Native Sister Circle and a mother of three, spoke briefly with ABC10 about how history still plays a role today in the Indian country.

“(There was) a time when our people lived in harmony and connection with Mother Earth and in connection with each other before contact,” Leticia said. “Once we had this historical trauma, this genocide, all these historical factors came into our communities that we don’t want to talk about once it happened, it created a trauma on our people. And so this trauma, we are directly impacted by it, whether we know it or not.

She pointed to epigenetics, which the CDC defines as the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect how your genes work.

“Sometimes we struggle with these mental health issues and we don’t know why, but it’s just in our DNA as tribal people because of the mass genocide and all the horrible things that happened to our ancestors.” , she said.

SNAHC and suicide prevention

The Sacramento Native American Health Center, like many other organizations in the city, provides places where people can find help, talk, and learn ways to improve themselves. One program that SNAHC offers specifically to youth is the Indigenous Youth Ambassador Program.

“Our Indigenous Youth Ambassadors worked alongside our communications department on a suicide prevention campaign…putting our face in the community, using our youth, our families and our community as that face, being those people who de-stigmatize the discussion on mental health, destigmatizing suicide and using their voices and faces in this campaign. It’s very, very important,” Julie said.

To learn more about SNAHC programs and what they offer, click here.

A message for the youth

Through the interviews with Angelina, Julie and Leticia, it was evident that suicide is an issue in Indian Country, but the topic shouldn’t just be about the numbers, but how culture, community and family play a part. central to prevention.

Traditional ceremonies, songs and dances, Native American youth and adults find hope and strength in traditional values ​​passed down from generation to generation.

When asked what she should say to young people, Angelina replied: “I think a typical thing they want to say is that they are not alone, but I definitely tell them that “they have a place to belong…let them know they are not alone and they have a place in this world because it is mostly what it is. When they feel this they turn to things like substances that our bodies can’t scientifically handle and therefore definitely take them and say, you know, you belong somewhere.

Resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call or text 988, or go to 988lifeline.org to reach the suicide and crisis helpline. Click here for more resources available through the National Alliance for Mental Health.

Extended interviews:

Look: Young Native Americans in Sacramento talk about growing up as a native

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