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When Joaquin Gallegos was 5-years-old, his uncle took his own life.
For two decades, more than 30 of his family members and friends did the same, part of a trend sweeping Indian Country where suicide among people age 18 to 24 far outpaces the national rate, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those who “completed” in taking their lives were in their 20s and 30s, and younger cousins first attempted suicide in their teens, said Gallegos, 25, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the Pueblo of Santa Ana and a researcher at the University of Colorado’s Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health.
In his community, suicide among young people is an ever-present issue that goes unaddressed, Gallegos explained. Part of the problem is that it can feel overwhelming.
“It’s kind of numbing,” he said. “When there’s one every week, how do you address it?”
Among people age 18 to 24 nationwide, the suicide rate is 12.8 deaths per 100,000, and is the second leading cause of death for people between 15- and 24-years-old, the CDC reported. Among all racial and ethnic groups studied, men at this age were far more likely than women to commit suicide. Within the American Indian and Alaskan Native population that age, the rate nearly doubles to 22.5 deaths per 100,000, according to CDC data from 2012 to 2013 released today.
And these numbers are likely higher in the American Indian community where deaths overall are underreported by as much as 30 percent, previous studies revealed. That may be due to an official misidentifying a person’s racial or ethnic identity at the time of their death, or that person may have self-identified as another race.
Even Arialdi Miniño, a statistician with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he was surprised to see that the suicide rate among college-age American Indian people was so high when analyzing two years of data with his team, enough data to bolster the findings’ statistical significance.
Within the American Indian and Alaskan Native communities, young people forced a conversation about suicide prevention during a recent United National Indian Tribal Youth conference, explained Mary Kim Titla, the organization’s executive director. She said adults at the conference were nervous about how it would go.
“The youth said, ‘I know you don’t want to talk about this, but we need to talk about it,’” she said.
Ultimately, 1,600 youth in attendance from across the country committed to raising awareness about suicide prevention when they returned home as part of the #IwillLive campaign.
“Our youth need to know that they’re loved and that they have a purpose in life,” Titla said.
Reflecting on his loved ones who have taken their lives, Gallegos blames poverty entangled with a lack of jobs or access to mental health care for the high suicide rates. He said that the federal government’s policies in the American Indian community made these conditions worse.
In fact, he wants to advocate for American Indians and “to obtain the healthcare we need and deserve,” Gallegos said, while taking a break from studying for his upcoming LSAT exam.
“It’s hard to focus on something when there are so many other tragedies occurring around you,” he said. “This one should take precedence because it involves the future of the tribal nation.”
Laura Santhanam is the Data Producer for the PBS NewsHour. Follow @LauraSanthanam
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