Nearly one in six American Indian adolescents has attempted suicide, a rate four times that of other teenagers, according to a study that found alarming health problems on reservations.
American Indian youths are more likely to come from broken homes or abuse drugs, and 20 percent describe their health as poor, said the report published Tuesday by the American Medical Association."This is the most devastated group of adolescents in the United States," said Michael Resnick, a University of Minnesota researcher who helped conduct the study.
Many Indian youths know friends or family members who have killed themselves, so suicide has become the way for them to deal with the distress and hopelessness that pervades their lives, the researchers said.
American Indian teenagers are twice as likely to die during their youth as non-Indians, the study said.
"Native American youths have a familiarity and intimacy with death and loss within families comparable to few other young people in our society," the study said.
The study offered a glimmer of hope. American Indian adolescents don't experience more health and mental problems than other young people until they reach the ninth grade, according to the survey.
The researchers said the problems can be solved with improved health services, better education, stronger cultural ties and the creation of mentorship programs to give Indian youths the role models many don't have.
Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Interior Committee, said the study "strips the charade away" that American Indians are doing all right.
"We are now on notice . . . exactly how devastated this community is," the California Democrat said at a news conference with the researchers. "You cannot participate in the formation of public policy and ignore the conclusions of this report."
There are only 17 mental health workers for the nation's 400,000 American Indian youths; 200 are needed, said Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Everett Rhoades, director of the Indian Health Service, said the health problems amounted to a "great epidemic that's taking off Indian youth."
Nearly 14,000 rural teenagers answered the questionnaire.