More than grief counseling needed at reservation schools

More than grief counseling needed at reservation schools

(S.D.) A string of student suicides on a South Dakota Indian reservation has prompted the federal government to provide funds to help hire support staff at the local school – a move advocates applaud but say addresses only a small part of a much larger problem.

The 800-student Pine Ridge School last week received $218,000 through a U.S. Department of Education program known as Project SERV – School Emergency Response to Violence.

The school, which serves eighth to 12th grades, will hire counselors and social workers for its summer session and the upcoming school year to help pupils and teachers cope with recent tragedies that include four student suicides since last August.

“There are many unique challenges these students face, and sadly, it’s largely invisible to the general public,” said Erin Bailey, executive director at the Aspen Institute’s Center for Native American Youth, in an interview last week.

Native American teens have the highest rate of suicide of any population group in the United States, – more than double the national rate, according to 2009 census data. Many reservations have few resources for mental health care.

 “I’ve had mental health care providers tell me that they don’t want free screening programs in their community because they don’t have any providers to see (patients),” Bailey said. “They feel it is terrifying to screen kids, identify them at risk, and have no way to then help them.”

High rates of poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual and domestic violence and homelessness among the adolescent Native American population are all too common, and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is no different. According to statistics from 2007, the reservation has:

  • The lowest life expectancy in the United States, second only to Haiti in the Western Hemisphere;
  • An 80-90 percent unemployment rate;
  • An alcoholism rate estimated to be as high as 80 percent;
  • A suicide rate more than twice the national rate; and
  • Four times the national rate for teen suicides.

“Suicide is a symptom of many challenges,” Bailey said. “It isn’t possible to point to one cause. Historical trauma, loss of land, culture and language, and disparities in terms of funding of all services are all factors as well.”

The Pine Ridge School experienced a significant uptick in the number of counseling referrals and suicide attempts between August 2014 and April 2015. Two of the four students who committed suicide were middle-school age.

“We are heartbroken about the tragic loss of life and are committed to working with the Pine Ridge community as it heals,” William Mendoza, director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education at the U.S. Department of Education, said in a statement.

“This Administration is committed to supporting tribes in their work to meet the needs of their students,” he said. “We all must do more to address the challenges across Indian Country. These funds will help Pine Ridge School's continued efforts to restore the learning environment in the face of these great tragedies.”

The grant was awarded as part of the Obama Administration's Generation Indigenous initiative, which seeks to improve the lives of Native youth by providing resources to expand access to health care services and help them succeed academically.

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