Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Indian Reservation Suicide Crises


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Native Americans have disturbingly high suicide rates, especially among youths. In July 2019, a suicide contagion in the Fort Belknap reservation of Montana was brought to light by Mountain West News. From July, over the past few months there had been three deaths by suicide on the Fort Belknap Reservation.

Anecdotally, there had been fifteen deaths among youths on the reservation. This ongoing crisis prompted the tribal government to declare a state of emergency “related to recent youth and adult suicides on the Fort Belknap Reservation.” In the past year and a half, the reservation has encountered a rising trend of suicides and attempted suicides. They’re mostly among teens and young adults, although the impacts obviously affect the community as a whole. It’s becoming increasingly unsettling how non-seriously this is being taken by various government agencies. According to Connie Filesteel, who works with the Indian Community Council on special projects, they don’t have access to accurate statistics among the reservation. Native Americans have significantly higher suicide rates than any other racial group. Factors including a history of oppression and murder, dilapidated reservations, poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, isolation, and many more underlying causes contribute to the 42.82 deaths by suicide for every 100,000 Native Americans youths in Montana. The statewide rate for the same age group is eight deaths by suicide for every 100,000. On the Fort Peck Reservation, also in Montana, similar problems have been faced and attempted to be addressed. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, this reservation has gone face to face with the tragic contagion of suicides and attempted suicides.

A suicide contagion, or suicide cluster, is “when you see one happening then multiple are attempting as well,” Filesteel says. A big influence in this is social media, which is aiding the spread. The Indian Health Service provides the statistics, but there is a problem with both the accuracy and accessibility of said statistics. Montana currently has the highest rate of suicides throughout the United States. According to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services data, Native youths from age 11 to 24 are five times more likely to commit suicide than non-Natives. In the 2009-2010 school year on the Fort Peck Reservation, five children killed themselves at Poplar Middle School. There are only 160 students. That same year twenty students at the middle school tried to kill themselves.

The reservation leaders at Fort Peck also declared a crisis, and in return emergency teams from the US Public Health Service swooped in last June, and provided counseling and mental health services in order to aid the already haggard reservation resources and overworked school counselors. When they left, it was thought that the contagion had passed. It had been 90 days with no suicides. But since October two more teens had killed themselves and many more across the reservation attempted to. These communities, among many more like it, have these strikingly high suicide rates yet we hear nothing of it. All we are doing by this is reinforcing the historical injustices these communities have already faced.

Mountain West News is the regional news service of the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana. The story has only been covered locally, with a few exceptions.  In August 2019, US News & World Report ran a story on the topic, drawn from the Associated Press, but this report failed to include statistics or relate about the severity of the issue. The report by Mountain West News included both shocking statistics and first-person accounts of the problem.

Source: “Tribe Faces Suicide Crisis,” Mountain West News, July 23, 2019, https://mountainwestnews.org/rockies-today-for-tuesday-july-23-99e8bc80babc.

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