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Montanans may never know exactly what caused the spike in suicides among the youth of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation - but we have a good idea of how to stop it.

The first step is to urge the U.S. Public Health Service to return to the reservation and provide much-needed counseling and mental health care. The next step is to see to it that these services are available to Fort Peck families on a long-term basis as part of a comprehensive safety net that catches these kids well before they fall through the cracks.

The heartbreaking spate of suicides by Native American children in Montana reached horrendous levels last school year, when five Poplar Middle School children killed themselves and 20 more students attempted suicide on the Fort Peck reservation.

Assiniboine and Sioux leaders recognized the situation for what it is - a crisis - and in response to their crisis declaration, federal emergency teams came to the reservation to shore up mental health services, study the situation and make some recommendations.

And for 90 days, there were no suicides.

But in the months following the departure of the emergency teams, the number of suicide attempts by children has swung upward once more, and two more teens have killed themselves.

During their stay, the Public Health Service team members who visited Fort Peck outlined a dire situation on the reservation, which has high rates of unemployment, substance abuse and poverty, and noted that these trends are mirrored in the schools, whose students experience relatively high rates of alcohol use, sexually transmitted diseases and dropouts. The students at Fort Peck Middle School reported ongoing bullying and peer pressure as contributing factors to suicide.

A March 21 Associated Press report on this tragic state of affairs noted that the rate of suicides, which is already the second-leading cause of death among Native American youth, is increasing, and that Indians younger than 25 commit suicide at more than twice the rate of their white peers.

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Fort Peck Reservation leaders have not been idle in the face of this tragic trend. Now, a new aggravated disorderly conduct charge can be used to hold those at risk of suicide until they can be seen by a mental health specialist. A new suicide prevention specialist is on staff, and the Indian Health Service is participating in regular suicide prevention meetings.

These are all positive developments, and they should be reinforced with a plan to fund and implement the recommendations outlined in the federal report, such as the suggestion to designate a safe house for youth at risk of suicide.  

In the meantime, the Public Health Service should send emergency teams back to the reservation to make sure those who need it are receiving mental health care care. Clearly, the crisis is not over yet.

EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Stacey Mueller, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen, Sales and Marketing Director Jim McGowan

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