A history of trauma
Many Indian psychologists believe that the root of the population's suicide problem is the combination of generational trauma and loss of ethnic identity.
As psychologist Tawa M. Witko, PhD, notes in her book, “Mental Health Care for Urban Indians: Clinical Insights From Native Practitioners” (APA, 2006), Europeans' effort to “civilize” Indians changed their culture in ways that are still being felt. In fact, until a generation ago, Indian children were still taken from their families and tribes and sent to boarding schools to assimilate into white culture. In the process, many customs that should have been handed down from generation to generation have been lost, notes Witko.
The intergenerational trauma, compounded by extreme poverty, lack of economic opportunity and widespread substance abuse, has shattered these communities, Perez says. “Suicide is a single response to a multiplicity of problems,” he emphasizes. “If you have these things going on, and you don't see any hope for the future, suicide seems like an option.”
Hope can often be hard to come by when there are not enough jobs on the reservation and you don't have a car or enough money for gas or even food, says Diane Willis, PhD, a Kiowa tribe member and professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. Willis, who has worked with tribes across the country teaching locals about infant mental health, says the economic situation is so dire that some Indians are starving. At one reservation—where the average resident income is $2,900 a year—she saw an 18-month-old little girl who was so hungry, that she grabbed for a freshly poured bowl of soup and burned herself. At another reservation, 40 people had attempted suicide within the last six months and approximately half succeeded.
Substance abuse—particularly alcohol—has fueled and compounded the misery, says psychologist Marlene EchoHawk, PhD, a member of the Otoe Missouria tribe and director of the Indian Health Service's Suicide Prevention Committee. In her community, alcohol became more prevalent when young Indian men returned from World War II with a newfound taste for alcohol and suffering from what is now recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. They used the alcohol to stop the pain, but it only increased the depression, notes EchoHawk, who has seen this pattern repeat itself with tribe members returning from Vietnam and now from Iraq.
Young people in Indian communities are turning to alcohol at a very young age, setting them up for a lifetime of alcohol abuse and an increased risk of suicide, says Willis. Indeed, in one community, almost 20 percent of middle school students admitted to having attempted suicide in the last six months, psychologist Teresa LaFromboise, PhD, an associate counseling psychology professor and chair of Native American Studies at Stanford University, found in a recent survey.
“Our children and grandchildren are carrying all the pain of the generations that came before,” says Ethleen Iron-Cloud Two Dogs, a member of the Ogalala Lakota tribe and director of Wakanyeja Pawicayapi (The Children First), Inc., a non-profit community mental health organization on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota.
Entire article may be read here: http://www.apa.org/monitor/feb07/astruggle.html