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'Suicide is a public health crisis': Native Americans disproportionately impacted by suicide

Native Americans and their communities are disproportionately impacted by suicide compared to other racial and ethnic groups, according to the CDC.

SACRAMENTO, California — Although preventable, suicide is a serious public health problem in the United States.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is a leading cause of death in the U.S. with 45,979 deaths in 2020.

That's about one death every 11 minutes.

People of any age, race, ethnicity or sex can experience suicide risk, but certain groups have substantially higher rates of suicide than the general population.

Native Americans and their communities are disproportionately impacted by suicide compared to other racial and ethnic groups, according to the CDC.

The CDC says suicide rates decreased 4% among white people between 2019 and 2020. At the same time, suicide rates increased 4% among Black people and 6% among Native people.

For Native communities, some contributing factors to suicide include limited access to health care resources, higher unemployment and poverty, and historical trauma.

Nathan Blacksmith is from Sacramento and currently serves as the Chief Traditional Health Officer at the Sacramento Native American Health Center (SNAHC).

It's a non-profit committed to sharing the legacy of a healthy Native community "based on cultural values delivered through a traditional, innovative and accessible patient-centered health home."

Before joining SNAHC, Blacksmith earned a degree in psychology and worked as a counselor for nine years. He focuses primarily on serving Native people and their communities.

He says the decision is personal.

"I, myself, was helped through the mental health systems," said Blacksmith. "It really inspired me to get involved and try to be a helping hand. The service is critical to our community in times of crisis and times of need."

SNAHC offers primary care, oral health, behavioral health, specialty and supportive services.

For behavioral health, SNAHC provides integrated care, mental health counseling and treatment, and recovery services.

When it comes to addressing suicide rates for Native communities, Blacksmith says it's important to recognize "cultural connection for Native people, access to ceremonies and elders, and funding for mental health services for Native populations."

Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services raises awareness about suicide prevention by leading the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline in California.

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

It offers 24/7 call, text and chat access to trained crisis counselors who can help people experiencing suicidal, substance use, mental health crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress.

People can also dial 988 if they are worried about a loved one who may need crisis support.

Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services is hosting 988 Tribal Summits across California to help bring tribes and mental health service providers together for suicide prevention.

The summits include engaging panels, speaker presentations, and small group listening sessions all centered around community and trust-building to increase awareness and understanding of the hotline.

"Didi Hirsch understands that suicide prevention work must be informed by each community’s unique needs, cultural practices and beliefs," said Shari Sinwelski, vice president of crisis care at Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. "We hope to establish relationships between local tribes and the crisis call centers so that when this population calls the 988 Lifeline the crisis counselors know how to best support them in a culturally sensitive way.”

Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services partnered with Assemblymember James C. Ramos (D-San Bernardino) to present the 988 Tribal Summits.

Ramos is the first and only California Native American serving in the state Legislature.

“Suicide is a public health crisis among American Indian and Alaska Native communities,” said Ramos. “This Summit is helping agencies that serve tribal communities better understand the unique needs of these populations and how suicide prevention work must be grounded in cultural understanding.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can call or text 988 for support.

Remember, it's free and confidential.

WATCH MORE: '988 Summit' Increasing suicide awareness for Indigenous community

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