PIERRE, S.D. – Cooperation between the state and tribal governments of
South Dakota may finally happen because of one of the most distasteful and
least talked-about problems – suicide.
South Dakota legislators were presented earlier this year with a suicide
prevention plan because the state’s suicide statistics are twice the
national rate for people under the age of 34, and the suicide rate on
reservations is at least four times that of the rest of the state.
Tribal governments will be asked to join with the state and local
communities to help prevent suicide.
Tribes, communities and organizations will be given a road map and basic
took kit for suicide prevention. The tool kit includes workable plans from
the national, state and local levels.
The tool kit will eventually be distributed to students, teachers, parents,
clergy and health professionals and will include screenings and an increase
in services for families and others adversely affected by suicide.
Franklin Cook of the Front Porch Coalition in Rapid City, one of the
organizers of the ad hoc group of state and tribal members called South
Dakota Strategy for Suicide Prevention, said the future of the plan is to
bring communities, individuals and anyone concerned about suicide rates
together to implement a strategy for suicide prevention.
Tully Estes, suicide prevention officer on the Crow Creek Reservation,
claims that suicide rates there are 370 times higher than national
averages. He claims that most of the suicides and attempts on the
reservations are the result of alcohol combined with hopelessness.
Buffalo County, where Crow Creek Reservation is located, has the highest
rate of suicide of any other county in the state or nation, according to
the data presented by the SDSSP. Buffalo County is also the poorest county
in the nation.
Many of the young people who attempt suicide do so at home, probably to
make a statement to family or friends. Many of the young people live in
dysfunctional families where alcohol or drugs, lack of money and
joblessness play a major role.
Young Lakota men and women on Crow Creek who are diagnosed as suicidal have
very few resources. They are returned to their families where the problem
may have started.
Estes said that funding and cooperation between agencies will help reduce
the number of suicide attempts. He said that a person who is diagnosed as
suicidal may be sent to a mental health center, which then determines
whether the person needs alcohol treatment and then releases the patient.
Another example: On the Crow Creek Reservation, there is little for young
people to do and the unemployment rate is 80 – 85 percent. It will take
funding, which the tribe does not have, to create a recreation facility.
“They have money to build detention facilities, but not recreation
facilities,” Estes said.
Cook said funding will not be the focus of the implementation of the plan,
but individual, community and tribal cooperation – grassroots involvement –
will be essential to its success. Cook did not ask the Legislature for
money, but merely to add their leadership to the strategic plan as the
tribal governments will be asked to do.
“I hope the ingenuity of the people of South Dakota will finish the
implementation,” Cook said.
A select group of 30 people has worked for two years to formulate ideas to
help prevent suicide.
Estes said he liked the strategies the group has developed. “It’s a bigger
problem in the whole state and people are not saying how bad it is.”
The report stated that while suicide in the state and in the nation was a
major problem, on the reservations of South Dakota it was an epidemic.
It is a statewide issue. The majority of suicides are white men, 85
percent. Fifteen percent of the state suicide deaths are American Indian,
but the Native population is only 8 percent – statistics that illustrate a
“Now we find out if the people of South Dakota want to answer the challenge
of making suicide prevention a priority,” Cook said. “I believe if the
people of South Dakota believe prevention ought to be a priority, this is a
blueprint to suicide prevention and we created the spark to get
Cook said that some reservation communities like Eagle Butte or the Crow
Creek Reservation have implemented programs that are working and could add
their ideas to the state wide prevention program.
Two percent of all American Indians reside in South Dakota, yet 5 percent
of all suicide deaths among American Indians occur in the state.
Three of the poorest counties in the nation are on South Dakota
reservations; alcohol consumption and violence are prevalent, which are
indicators of suicide, Estes said.
Suicide fatality rates have declined on the Crow Creek Reservation. In 2003
there were 80 non-fatal attempts with five deaths; in 2004 there were 117
non-fatal attempts with only one fatality.
Estes said his success rate is directly related to peer group intervention.
He trained five to 10 young people each week and they were to contact at
least 10 of their peers. Soon there were 800 young people contacted.
As the strategic plan for the state implies, Crow Creek used the community
to implement the prevention program. “It was a community thing, not just
with the youth. We had five or six agencies involved and it seemed to work.
Parents wanted it and we got a positive response,” Estes said.
Funding for the Crow Creek project came from groups and individuals. Estes
said the program he used reached 800 young people at a cost of $14,000.
“We’ve gone a long way on a hope and a prayer and a little funding, and we
are ready to keep at it.
“We hope that by the end of May or maybe mid-summer we will put the
finishing touches on the tool kit. It will be available this year,” Cook
He said the method by which tribal governments will be contacted has yet to
be formalized, but he said part of the solution to suicide prevention is in
One problem is that if there is a crisis there is a response, but when the
crisis is over people tend to retreat and another crisis will be
Time is an enemy to prevention. Estes said that non-fatal attempts in
people aged 10 – 14 are on the increase. Data in the study shows only from
age 14 and above. Sixty-five percent of non-fatal attempts at Crow Creek
were young people under the age of 24.