Stopping the Suicide “Contagion” Among Native Americans

The CDC finds that rates of suicide related to other suicide deaths are extremely high among the American Indians/Alaska Natives community.


American Indians/Alaska Natives (AI/AN) have a disproportionately high rate of suicide—more than 3.5 times those of racial/ethnic groups with the lowest rates, according to a CDC study. And the rate has been steadily rising since 2003.

Those at highest risk are young people aged 10 to 24 years: More than one-third of suicides have occurred in that group compared with 11% of whites in the same age group.

In the CDC study, about 70% of AI/AN decedents lived in nonmetropolitan areas, including rural areas, which underscores the importance of implementing suicide prevention strategies in rural AI/AN communities, the researchers say. Rural areas often have fewer mental health services due to provider shortages and social barriers, among other factors. The researchers point out that in their study AI/AN had lower odds than did white decedents of having received a mental health diagnosis or mental health treatment.

The researchers also found suggestions of “suicide contagion”; AI/AN decedents were more than twice as likely to have a friend’s or family member’s suicide contribute to their death. Community-level programs that focus on “postvention,” such as survivor support groups, should be considered, the researchers say. They also advise that media should focus on “safe reporting of suicides,” for example, by not using sensationalized headlines.

Nearly 28% of the people who died had reported alcohol abuse problems, and 49% had used alcohol in the hours before their death. The researchers caution that differences in the prevalence of alcohol use among AI/AN might be a symptom of “disproportionate exposure to poverty, historical trauma, and other contexts of inequity and should not be viewed as inherent to AI/AN culture.”

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