Suicide does not discriminate in Indian Country.
It shadows every member of every tribe. It has no regard for age or gender.
Earlier this year, an 8-year-old girl on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation tried to hang herself in her bathroom. Another 8-year-old spoke openly about killing herself. And a 9-year-old planned to kill herself by taking her parents’ medications.
Each of these attempts was caught in time. But a staggering number are successful.
In fact, Montana Native Americans have the highest rate of suicide in a state that has the highest rate in the nation.
All the factors that contribute to Montana’s alarming number of suicides – high rates of alcohol use and gun ownership, insufficient mental health care, rural isolation and joblessness – are compounded on the state’s Indian reservations.
During the winter on some reservations, unemployment can jump to 80 percent. Sexual and domestic violence is endemic and the high school dropout rate hovers at about 44 percent.
On top of that is a taboo in some Native American cultures against speaking of the dead, especially the victims of suicide.
Lana Lambert-Mikkelsen, the Fort Peck Indian Tribe’s suicide prevention coordinator, said her current caseload includes people ages 8 to 76.
“Who is at greatest risk?” asked an incredulous Lambert-Mikkelsen. “Everybody. I don’t have a specific gender. I don’t have a specific age group. I don’t have specific indicators.”
And that’s true on all seven of Montana’s Indian reservations.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death, after accidents, for Native Americans ages 15 to 34. The rate is 2.5 times higher than the national average for that age group.
Rates are highest for young Native American men, who make up 40 percent of all suicides in Indian Country.
And the suicides can run in clusters.
Within two months in 1985, nine young men on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming hanged themselves.
More recently, in a span of six months during 2010, at least six students on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation killed themselves. Four hanged themselves, one used a gun and another stepped in front of a train. The youngest was 13.
It could have been even worse. During the same period, at least 20 other young people on the Fort Peck reservation attempted suicide.
This year got off to a bad start. In January, a 23-year-old woman killed herself on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Two weeks later, a 17-year-old high school student on the Crow Reservation killed herself. That was followed by a 15-year-old Northern Cheyenne girl’s suicide. Two of the women were relatives; all three knew each other.