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Sequester hits Native Americans' mental health services

Behavioral health counselor Ty Etsitty speaks to a group of Navajo Nation teens about becoming self reliant, as part of a Navajo youth conference in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Centuries ago, tribes gave up much of their land to the federal government in exchange for promises of funded health care, education and housing. Time and time again those funds have been cut. The sequestration has been no exception.

Even though suicide rates are nearly four times the national average, Indian country’s mental health services have been hit.

Amber Ebarb, a budget and policy analyst with the National Congress of American Indians, says sequestration undermines American-Indian treaty rights, and makes a dire situation even worse.

“The suicide epidemic is symptomatic of something that’s much deeper,” Ebarb says. “There’s also the issues of historical trauma that continue to plague our communities.” She says those problems include high unemployment, drug use and gang violence.  

Speaking before a Senate committee in April, National Indian Health Board Chairwoman Cathy Abramson said the sequestration cuts are literally a matter of life or death for American Indians and Alaska Natives.  

“Since the beginning of the year, there have been 100 suicide attempts in 110 days on Pine Ridge,” Abramson said, referring to an Indian reservation in South Dakota. “Because of sequestration, they will not be able to hire two mental health care providers. As one tribal health official told NIHB, ‘We can’t take any more cuts. We just can’t.’”  

And South Dakota's Pine Ridge tribe isn’t unique. American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest rates of suicide compared to any other ethnic group. The Navajo Nation in Arizona is trying to curb those numbers. At a youth conference in Flagstaff, more than 200 Navajo teens learned how to be self reliant.  

“As young as nine-years-old, we’ve heard of kids committing suicide. All the way up to the elders, you know, grandmas and grandpas,” says Ty Etsitty, a behavioral health counselor with the Navajo Nation who spoke at the conference. “It doesn’t discriminate.”  

Etsitty says the tribe needs more licensed therapists and facilities, especially for kids. But every time he proposes something that costs money, he’s shut down.  

“I have lots of ideas, it’s just too many red flags with the Navajo Nation no funding lack of maybe support,” Etsitty says. Etsitty points out the reservation stretches across three states, but the tribe only has one facility for teens. That means families have to travel a hundred miles or more to get help for their kids.

This story comes from Fronteras, a public radio collaboration in the Southwest.    

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