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American Indian Resiliency In the Face of Suicide

Posted By Laurelle Myhra, Thursday, September 15, 2016


American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/ANs) have the highest prevalence rate of suicide in the nation. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among AI/ANs between age 10 to 34, and 1.5 times higher than the national average for ages 15 to 34 (CDC, 2013, 2011). Risk factors for suicide include mental health disorders, substance abuse, intergenerational trauma, and community-wide issues (Indian Health Services (IHS), 2016). 

Additionally, social ills contribute to risk factors, including experiences of systematic oppression, trauma, racism (e.g., mascot) and historical trauma practices (e.g., boarding school). These impede the potential impact of protective factors and have been linked to the state of public health (e.g., health disparities, chronic disease) among AI/ANs today (Campbell & Evans-Campbell, 2011; Gone & Trimble, 2012; Walters et al., 2011).


Still today, AI/ANs are victimized at the highest rate of any other racial group, twice the rate of other groups, and mostly commonly by strangers or acquaintance (80%) most of which are White (60%; Perry, 2004). Resilience, one’s ability to quickly recover from these traumatic experiences, is based on the quality and number of protective factors at play. Factors that protect AI/ANs against suicidal behavior are a sense of belonging to one's culture, strong friendship,tribal and spiritual bonds, feeling connected tofamily, opportunity to express feelings, and positive emotional health (IHS, 2016).


Unfortunately, my life has not been untouched by grief and loss associated with suicide. As a half Anishinabe and Caucasian woman from Red Lake, MN, I witnessed from an early age mistreatment of AI people. In the education system, this was evidenced by education gaps, and personally being called stupid by a teacher and who then told the class "all Indians are stupid”. My second grade self was angered and knew I should tell my mother.


My mother was my biggest supporter, telling me I could do anything I put my mind to, and although I never knew the outcome on our local education system, my mother went many times to the school to discuss her concerns about how I was being treated. As I grew up incidents such as these persisted, but presented in the form of microaggression, where people would often apologize before saying rude and racist things.


While in the third year of my PhD program, my 22-year-old brother committed suicide. We were devastated. I tried to understand why this young, handsome, bright, kind-hearted, funny and loved person would take his life. He never shared with the family about negative experiences he had, as I had. However, he dropped out of high school and when I would encourage him regarding his education he was irritated with me, and once told me "I’m not smart like you girls are”. I realized many years later that somewhere along his short life he internalized the negative messages he heard regarding AIs.

Great efforts are being made to address the high rates of suicide and heal from trauma in Indian Country. There are a number of tool kits geared toward reducing AI/ANs suicides with community and culturally based curriculum, which can be found at Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Tribal Training and Technical Assistance Center. Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board (NPAIHB) has launched a anti-suicide media campaign including posters and a fact sheet with the Community is the Healer that Breaks the Silence and has published a Tribal Suicide Action Plan availableto download on their site.


In the Twin Cities, Suzanne Koepplinger, a respected elder, is leading the Catalyst Initiative at the George Family Foundation, to support culturally grounded healing practices and promoting community resilience. In talking with Suzanne Koepplinger, she explained that her goal is to support the use of existing healing practices, done by healers already in place, and through the language of the community. This strength-based approach trusts in the human capacity to heal from trauma by drawing on existing traditional knowledge. Koepplinger believes this healing work will lead to an enhanced sense of wellbeing and deeper family relationships.


George Family Foundation awarded Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center (MIWRC) a seed grant to introduce integrative health and healing practices to communities most in need. Elders Linda Eaglespeaker and Donna LaChapelle of MIWRC, have become certified faculty with Center for Mind Body Medicine of Washington D.C., and are working on Pine Ridge Reservation with the Oglala Sioux tribal members to heal from trauma and suicide as a community.


Word of its success is spreading quickly, and other local tribes such as Leech Lake and White Earth are requesting these teachings. Koepplinger emphasized the importance of taking from the trainings what is culturally meaningful and making cultural adaptations were needed. For example, Linda Eaglespeaker, has blended the safe place guided imagery with her traditional Blackfoot teachings to heal both physical and emotional pain.


The loss of my brother taught me that we need to do a better job of understanding and addressing the impact of racism and other traumatic experiences on children. Locally there is a grass roots initiative called Mill City Kids, focused on doing just that, prevention against the effects of racism with both African American and AI/AN children.


Mill City Kids is one of the initiatives selected by Silos to Circles to go through a process of Community Resiliency Planning, in which community members identify goals and take action steps to address them collectively. Efforts such as these are inspiring and provide hope for the future. There is not quick solution to addressing these social ills but acknowledgement is a first step.

Laurelle Myhra, PhD, LMFT is the Director of Health Services at Catholic Charities of St Paul and Minneapolis. Her clinical work and research has focused on families, resiliency, trauma, mental health, substance abuse and integrated care among American Indians. She received her doctorate in Family Social Science/Marriage and Family Therapy from the University of Minnesota. 


Campbell, C. D. & Evans-Campbell, T. (2011). Historical trauma and Native American child development and mental health: An overview. In: Sarche, M., Spicer, P., Farrell, P., Fitzgerald, H. E. (Eds.). American Indian and Alaska Native Children and Mental Health: Development, Context, Prevention, and Treatment (pp. 1–26).Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [Online]. (2013, 2011) National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC (producer). Retrieved from

Gone, J. P. & Trimble, J. E. (2012). American Indian and Alaska Native mental health: Diverse perspectives on enduring disparities.Annual review of clinical psychology, 8, 131–160.

Indian Health Services (IHS; 2016). Suicide Prevention Program. Retrieved from

Perry, S. W. (2004). American Indians and Crime. A BJS Statistical Profile, 1992-2002. U.S. Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA, 2016). Suicide Prevention. Tribal Training and Technical Assistance Center. Retrieved from

Walters, K. L., Mohammed, S. A., Evans-Campbell, T., Beltrán, R. E, Chae, D. H., & Duran, B. (2011). Bodies don’t just tell stories, they tell histories.Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race,8(1), 179–189.

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