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Teen Suicides on South Dakota Reservation Spark Federal Response

Crossposted from the Rules for Engagement blog

By Evie Blad

Schools, community leaders, and mental health professionals are rushing to respond to a cluster of suicides on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota, where seven teenagers have killed themselves in recent months.

Members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, who live on the 2 million-acre reservation, have held meetings to determine the best ways to respond, middle and high school students have taken to social media to discuss the deaths, and teams of mental health counselors with the U.S. Public Health Service have arrived to work with students, the Associated Press reports.

Poverty, alcoholism, violence, and mental health issues are common on the reservation, and suicides are not unusual there, but a cluster of younger deaths has shocked the community, the AP reports. From that story:

"Teachers recently foiled a plan by several high school girls to take their lives simultaneously.

Pine Ridge School, which offers kindergarten through high school, is seeking federal money to keep its dormitory open during the weekends so students don't have to go home, where most of the suicides happen. Many students spend the school week on the campus, in the reservation's largest town, to avoid long daily bus rides.

'Before cellphones and everything, a kid could get away from bullying at school by going home and they felt safe,' said Yvonne DeCory, a suicide-prevention outreach worker at Pine Ridge. But no more. 'You're no longer safe in your own home. These kids feel that.' "

The problem of suicide contagion is not unique to schools on reservations. Communities of varying demographic makeups have worked to respond to clusters by working with the media, training teachers on mental health warning signs, and bringing in outside counselors to help students grapple with the losses.

Leaders with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention say they are working to help schools intervene at earlier ages by identifying mental health warning signs as early as elementary school.

Last year, the foundation joined three other organizations in releasing a model suicide-prevention policy to guide school districts in addressing the issue.

Only four states--Alaska, Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee--currently require that educators receive annual training to prevent suicide, the organizations said when they released the policy. They encouraged districts to take the initiative in addressing the mental health needs of students.

To read more about the challenges facing Native American youths on the Pine Ridge reservation and elsewhere, read this great package of stories on Indian education that Education Week ran in 2013.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

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