Addressing suicidality among Indigenous women, girls

Historical trauma and current social factors contribute to depression, PTSD, anxiety disorders


The history of abuse and genocide has its precursors in antiquity. A brief sketch of this history will provide some insights into the impact of intergenerational trauma and a rationale for the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the United States and Canada, or Turtle Island, as the Indigenous People call it.

Dr. Mary Hasbah Roessel is a Navajo board-certified psychiatrist practicing in Santa Fe, N.M., working with the local Indigenous population

Dr. Mary Hasbah Roessel

Such a review also will provide a partial explanation of why the suicide rate among non-Hispanic Native American or Alaska Native women increased by 139%1 during 1999-2017 – a time when more Indigenous women were gaining access to law and medical school, as well as positions of authority in their tribes.

Church-, state-sanctioned transgressions

The psychological impact of our past history haunts us today. Papal bulletins – decrees from the pope – gave permission to Christian explorers to take land, wealth, and slaves from any nonbeliever. This permission was labeled the Doctrine of Discovery. It was incorporated into U.S. law in 1823, and by the Supreme Court case, Johnson v. M’intosh. It also provided rationale for the Indian Removal Act, which was passed on May 28, 1830, and signed into law by U.S. President Andrew Jackson. As a result of that law, Indigenous People were forced onto reservations, often removed from their traditional and sacred homelands. Many died during forced relocation.2

From the time of “discovery” by settlers until well into the 19th century, the U.S. governmental intent was genocide. It was manifest by the outright murder of Indigenous People, displacement from land, and the disruption of families when children were taken, put into boarding schools, and were forbidden to speak their language. Indigenous medicine people were killed or jailed for practicing their traditional ceremonies. Indigenous nations had their laws, languages, and agricultural practices denied them. Even today, they must practice U.S. law, adapt colonizing forms of land ownership, and engage in the economic practices of the dominant culture. The economic system currently in place rewards rape of the land and creates a trickle-up economy that keeps rewarding the rich at the expense of the poor. The economic system even gives corporations legal status as individuals, and, in some cases, is allowed to supersede the rights of Indigenous nations.

Today, the federal government still can appropriate land for minerals, pipelines,3 and even put indigenous land and water sovereignty at risk of contamination and pollution by mines established upstream.4 Most of those practices are repugnant to Indigenous nations. The Doctrine of Discovery established prior to 1492 is still alive and well on Turtle Island.

It is this background that denies the rights of Mother Earth, and this backdrop that, in turn, generalizes the denial of the rights of Indigenous women. There are women today, who, against their will and knowledge, have been sterilized.5 There are cases in which women have been raped and beaten, and their perpetrators were never been brought to justice.6 There are jurisdictional issues in the federal law that keep non-native perpetrators from being punished for their actions on tribal sovereign land.

This history and those current practices affect Indigenous families. Historical trauma produces epigenetic changes7 that create more anxiety and depression. Families in which one or both parents were taken away have a harder time providing a loving, safe, addiction-free environment for their children. Children often have high scores on measurements of adverse childhood experiences and suffer PTSD. As psychiatrists, we have treated PTSD from residential and boarding school survivors, families with family members who were victims of being missing or murdered, and survivors of sexual abuse – both in the United States and Canada. According to the final Canadian report of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the murder rate for Indigenous women was 12 times that of non-Indigenous women.8

We assert that this combination of historical trauma and current social factors contributes to depression, PTSD, and anxiety disorders that currently feed the rise in attempted and completed suicide. Less-than-optimal educational opportunities and unemployment, often above 10% on reservations,9 along with food insecurity, accentuate the settings in which women and girls live.


Next Article:

Technology, counseling, and CBT apps for primary care

Related Articles