Office of Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp helped introduce bipartisan legislation on Tuesday that would help address the suicide crisis on Indian reservations in North Dakota and across the country.
Indian Country is experiencing a suicide epidemic that is claiming the lives of a disproportionate number of Native youth and adults. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Native youth, and the overall suicide rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives was more than 3.5 times higher than the rate of any other ethnic group. But too often, local and statewide suicide prevention programs do not fully meet the needs of Indian Country, particularly when it comes to addressing the mental health challenges caused by poverty, abuse, addiction, or lack of educational or employment opportunities on reservations.
The bipartisan Native American Suicide Prevention Act would specifically help tackle the suicide crisis in Indian Country by requiring states to collaborate with tribal communities to design and implement new statewide suicide intervention and prevention strategies that are culturally-sensitive toward Native populations.
“On reservations in North Dakota and across the country, we have seen a disturbing trend of tribal citizens— particularly Native youth— experiencing serious mental health struggles caused in part by factors like poverty, domestic abuse, and fewer educational opportunities. And far too often, these generational issues lead to a disproportionate number of deaths by suicide,” said Heitkamp.
“Our bipartisan bill would work to address this issue head on by giving tribes a much-needed seat at the table as cutting-edge, evidence-based early intervention and prevention strategies are developed. Far too often Native children and families are left behind, and we cannot allow that to happen. The severe and traumatic stress too many Native children face has long-term repercussions, including higher rates of suicide, and we need to do everything we can to make sure every child in our country is safe. Our bill is part of that solution.”
Another CDC study found that American Indian and Alaska Native men and women ages 35 to 64 experienced a 59.5% increase in suicide rates between 1999 and 2010—a greater percentage increase than any other ethnic group.
The bipartisan bill would help lower Native suicide rates by amending the Public Health Service Act to require states or state-designated entities to collaborate with tribes in efforts to curtail the alarming prevalence of death by suicide in Native communities. Specifically, the bill would mandate that state governments receiving grants under section 520E of the Public Health Service Act must collaborate with each federally recognized Indian tribe, tribal organization, urban Indian organization, and Native Hawaiian health care system in the state in developing and implementing statewide suicide early intervention and prevention strategies.
Heitkamp introduced the bipartisan legislation with U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tom Udall (D-NM), Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-NV), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Angus King (I-ME), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Jon Tester (D-MT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Tina Smith (D-MN), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Brian Schatz (D-HI).
Organizations backing the legislation include the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, the Association on American Indian Affairs, the National Council of Urban Indian Health, the Alaska Native Health Board, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Tanana Chiefs Conference, Papa Ola Lokahi and the Association for Behavioral Healthcare.
Heitkamp has consistently worked to promote suicide prevention programs among Native young people. In 2015, Heitkamp spoke with tribal leaders, Indian Health Service officials, and policy experts on the need to comprehensively address the severe mental health challenges facing Native children, such as suicide.
Last week, Heitkamp hosted her Summit to Stop Suicide, which brought together over 100 North Dakota community leaders, educators, law enforcement officers, farmers, veterans, advocates, health care professionals, and youth from across the state to discuss how to improve North Dakota’s efforts to prevent deaths by suicide— including in Indian Country.
In 2014, Heitkamp launched her Strong & Safe Communities Initiative, which places an emphasis on addressing substance abuse, childhood trauma, and other mental health challenges— which can all be factors leading to suicide among Native youth. One of the key focuses of Heitkamp’s Strong & Safe Communities Initiative is to work with local, state, and tribal leaders to address the state’s behavioral and mental health challenges.
Heitkamp has long worked to address the root causes of chronic mental health challenges on reservations. Heitkamp’s Commission on Native Children is currently examining ways to address major economic, social, justice, mental health, and educational disparities experienced by Native American children— and is offering sustainable solutions to improve outcomes. Since introducing her bill to create the Commission in 2013, her first bill as a U.S. senator, Heitkamp successfully pushed for its passage which happened in 2016, fought to get the Commission funded, and pushed for the prompt appointment of Commission members after it became law.
And Heitkamp has long worked to protect Native children and communities from violence, including working to protect women and girls from abduction and human trafficking. In October 2017, she introduced Savanna’s Act, legislation to combat the epidemic of murdered and missing Native women and girls. On some reservations, Native women are murdered at ten times the national average, and 84 percent of Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime.
In April 2018, Heitkamp and U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) announced that their bipartisan bill to expand AMBER Alerts in Indian Country was signed into law. Heitkamp introduced the bill to expand the child abduction warnings in Indian Country, because such alerts are critical for law enforcement efforts to quickly disseminate information to the public about abducted children to generate leads as quickly as possible. Currently, this level of alert is not available in many parts of Indian Country— or is limited to tribal lands.