When Suicide Seems More Like Homicide… The Consequences of a Well-Intentioned but Neglectful Bureaucracy

When bureaucracy fails our youth, and our youth die, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We know there is a problem with youth suicide. We know we need interventions to improve the situation. And, in some cases, we even know what those interventions should be. But if someone in a high needs area misses a grant deadline, checks the wrong box, or fails to receive instructions for revision/resubmission’s in a timely manner, should we cut off our nose despite our face? Should we cancel the program or give it the help it needs to meet the criteria? If the programs are making an impact, we need to put boots on the ground, not attachments in an e-mail, and help them succeed.

The picture for this blog, says it all when talking about a difficult topic.  So to make it clear to those reading, you’re awesome. Every life matters and we all have something to offer no matter our backgrounds. This blog post comes from the need to voice this issue. But, it’s also been ignited from an article that was shared on Facebook in regards to a suicide prevention program in a high needs area not getting funded, when it had been declared a promise zone by President Obama. I am not endorsing the program, nor am I condemning the hard-working people in the grant agencies who have to enforce rules to insure fairness in the process. But, perhaps, the process is fundamentally flawed. The problem is, all programs are competing for scarce resources, and not even just Native specific. The needs greatly outweigh the resources. Do you think a competitive system is the best way to handle people suffering and in need of help? Do you think it right that an error in paper-work, or a Tribe without a seasoned grant writer, be handicapped in getting needed resources? Can we do better?

Suicide is a serious problem for Indian Country but it’s a serious problem in general.  I believe suicide is never the answer, every life is sacred and precious, and we all are meant to be here.  We all face our own battles but we are all here for each other or, supposed to be. Sadly, the age of suicide deaths and attempts range from elementary school age to elders. The amazing thing I have been able to witness though, is meeting with survivors or leaders of groups/organizations that are trying to raise awareness and create a platform for Native youth and adults to talk about their stories, to engage them in projects, and to empower them. I can’t give you the number of the times I’ve sat in a hearing, briefing, or in the audience at a symposium or watching film, silently weeping, when the focus was Native suicide. It’s a devastating topic. But sitting through all of those instances, I heard strength in their voices. I saw determination to fight this and put an end to suicide in Indian Country. It’s a large task to take on, but there are people and programs trying to accomplish that. We want to be more than a terrifying and heartbreaking statistic.

What leads to suicide in Indian Country?:

There are a variety of factors. Devastating poverty rates on the reservations. Substance abuse. Alcohol abuse. Sexual assaults. Domestic violence. Health disparities. Depression, which can stem from generational trauma, the problem of not fitting in with two worlds: modern society and our own culture/heritage. Family problems. Bullying. Loss of a loved one. Mental health instability. Whatever the reasons, they affect Natives at much higher rates than other groups.


  • New Federal data shows that American Indians have much higher rates than ALL other groups, ages 18-24.
  • AI/AN men are twice as likely to commit suicide than other gender or racial groups
    • 3% deaths per 100,000 people for males and 9.9 deaths for females.

There are way too many funerals linked to suicide in Indian Country. Sadly, it’s an epidemic for us. From all of my work with Tribal communities, the word “suicide” is looked at as a taboo. The notion of, “if you talk about it, it will happen” lingers in the back of some minds like a dark shadow. So many elders refrain from the word. For those that have lost someone to suicide or is a survivor of suicide, they all had/have their battles. From the outside looking in, it’s hard for us to see the “signs.” As much as we want to help, there is only so much we can do, and for the rest of us, we’re left with “what else could we have done?”

We need to talk about suicide and not be silent. We need to make ourselves known to those who are struggling that they can come to us, whether it’s for advice or to ask questions where we can point them in the right direction. We need the communities to focus their efforts on resilience, trauma informed care, empowerment initiatives, programs, more federal funding, Grass roots advocacy, and community-based activism.

Tying It Together

I began this blog wondering if competitive grant programs are the best way to address these issues. To some degree they are. Tribes that are organized and ahead of the curve should be encouraged to seek the resources they need to develop innovative and impactful interventions. But, especially in an era of data-based solutions, can we also focus on high needs areas with more than resources? Why not send knowledgeable representatives to these areas to assist the communities in developing sustainable and impactful interventions? Why not provide the resources they need to then get the resources they need? There is a step missing. I would like to see a program that targets high needs areas, such as youth suicides on the Pine Ridge reservation for example, and provide that community the resources it needs to address that issue without having to compete with communities that appear to be veterans when seeking grants. At the very least, can’t we provide resources to help make it a fair game?

In the end, this is a Sophie’s choice issue. When there aren’t enough resources to go around, difficult choices have to be made. But, competition is only fair when the playing field is equal and the players are well trained. Imagine a boxing match between an Olympian and some guy from the neighborhood. Not pretty. Likewise, imagine judging a grant written by a small Tribe without access to a professional grant writer and one from a large Tribe with a dedicated team of grant writers. Not a fair fight. If we can’t target the problem specifically where it is worse (best case scenario), then the very least we can do is make sure the game is fair…and that includes working with the teams to identify and develop strong grants before they are submitted for competition. Then, we can we feel that distributing scarce resources to high needs areas will be on an even playing field.


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