Guest Post: Teen suicide epidemic on Pine Ridge reservation

Illustration credit: Mark Castillo

About an hour away from Mount Rushmore, America’s historic tribute to its past presidents, is the Pine Ridge reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe (OST). Pine Ridge is in southwest South Dakota. Long dusty roads are punctuated by clustered trailers with yards of piling garbage.

According to 2017 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 44% of individuals live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is nearly 70%, more than 17 times higher than the national rate. Pine Ridge has alarmingly low life expectancy — men are expected to live to 48 and women to 52. Local estimates suggest that alcoholism affects up to two-thirds of adults on Pine Ridge reservation. Nearly one-fourth of babies born have fetal alcohol syndrome. This toxic mix of poverty, unemployment and poor health most likely has contributed to a suicide crisis among Native American teens.

According to Friends of Pine Ridge reservation, the teenage suicide rate is 150% higher than the national average. In 2014, a state of emergency was declared on the reservation after 14 youths killed themselves.

Many tribal programs on the reservation rely on grant funding to establish and maintain resources. In 2012 the Pine Ridge reservation was awarded a grant to develop a suicide prevention program known as The Sweet Grass program. Although this program strives to decrease suicide rates, it is one of very few resources on the reservation and it alone cannot reach all youth and teens. Social worker Amanda Cordova discussed the topic with a relative who is an enrolled tribal member of the Pine Ridge reservation and is an active leader within the community.

“I think suicide here on the reservation is our biggest battle and our worst enemy we have encountered as indigenous people,” Cordova’s relative said. “The only way we will win this battle is to join forces with programs and the community. We need to provide resiliency and coping skills to our youth. They need to deal with hopelessness through our culture and our way of being a good relative.”

The tribal member went on to explain the importance of having a sense of purpose in life and that knowing our place in the community is vital to having that sense of belonging.

In 2012, the U.S federal government began a round of 23 youth-suicide prevention grants which totaled $500,000 per year for three years. However, only 43 of the 566 federally recognized tribes received these grants, according to the Lakota Law Project, a non-profit which focuses on Native American rights. Mental health initiatives are an essential component of combating this suicide crisis, but more needs to be done. Pine Ridge’s per capita income is $9,334, according to the census bureau. This level of poverty makes it difficult for families to meet basic needs. In a 2017 governmental report on suicide prevention, the Centers for Disease Control stated, “strengthening household financial security and stabilizing housing can reduce suicide risk.” It is not uncommon for Pine Ridge families to have trouble heating their homes in the winter. Lack of such basic needs makes it difficult for Pine Ridge teens to focus on their future. Native American high school graduation rates are at 65% versus the 75% national rate and only 33% of Native American teens go on to earn a four-year degree, census data shows.

How can a student study if there is no heat on in the home? Lack of basic needs causes a spiral effect that ultimately results in a feeling of hopelessness. Our nation needs to do better to restore hope among the Native American youth of today. South Dakota currently has a low- income energy assistance program (LIEAP), but it is a “first come first serve basis” and it doesn’t cover all of the utility bill. The non-profit Running Strong for American Indian Youth raises funds to cover energy costs for Native American families. However, funding from nonprofits isn’t guaranteed. Besides, these are only temporary fixes to a much larger problem that spans centuries — the systemic poverty and oppression of Native American communities.

Perhaps the alarming rate of teen suicide on Native American reservations will move the nation to acknowledge the human rights crisis that is occurring on Pine Ridge reservation and ultimately provide sustainable solutions to a historic pattern of maltreatment and neglect.

The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from government officials, local experts and concerned citizens on a variety of topics. These posts are meant to provide diverse perspectives and do not represent the views of The Independent. To pitch a guest post, please contact or visit our submission page