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Native Americans Have Highest Rate of Suicide

Laurel Morales

American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest rates of suicide compared to any other ethnic group in the United States. And in many tribes it's considered taboo to even talk about the problem. A recent workshop in Flagstaff hoped to address that.

Emmy Burruel lives in Flagstaff with her husband and two children. She recalled a couple years ago she and her husband were fixing up their guest room when they got the call.

"My mom is crying hysterically, she’s like, 'we found your brother' and I’m like, 'what do you mean you found my brother?'" Burruel said. "She’s like, 'he’s gone. He hung himself.'"

Burruel immediately packed her kids up in the car and drove three hours to the small Navajo community called Many Farms to be with her family. Burruel said she wishes she would’ve acted when she saw the signs -- red flags she only recognizes now.

"I should’ve asked or I should’ve intervened somehow," Burruel said.

But she said Navajos don't talk about death.

Burruel has made it her mission to educate and empower other families. Now she knows when someone is indirectly asking for help and she teaches those signs.

Because it’s taboo on some reservations, a death by suicide often goes unreported and police classify it as an accident. Even with all the suicides that have gone unreported, the rate among American Indians across the nation ages 15 to 34 is twice as high as the national average.

Many speculate why the number is so high. There are few jobs on the reservation. On the Navajo Nation the unemployment rate is almost 50 percent. And many live below the federal poverty line. Kids move away for jobs. Yet there are pressures from family to move back and help care for the elderly and the livestock. There are also issues with substance abuse.

Suicide prevention specialist Gilbert Contreras told the group about a workshop he held recently in the Navajo town of Leupp where several suicides have taken place.

"There’s not a word for suicide in their native language," Contreras said. "And my response and I hope I wasn’t insensitive or careless was, ‘then create one, because your brothers and sisters are dying in high proportions here when it comes to suicide. I think it’s a topic we need to talk about and put on the table.’"

But even attending a workshop makes some nervous. Marcella Jones Francis, who works at the Indian Health Service in Chinle, said she fears she might contaminate herself and her family with talk of suicide.

"It’s kind of carrying that with me, the negativity on my body and taking it home with me, carrying to my family members, taking that negativity on my kids," Francis said.

Workshop leader Emmy Burruel had the same concern, so she went to a medicine man to ask his advice.

"I heard one medicine man say you have to know a little bit about the bad to fix the good," Burruel said. "I suffered the bad so now I need to know I can fix the good and you know help other families."  

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