In today’s overheated political climate it’s easy to become cynical about politicians and promises. That’s why I’m so heartened by an announcement I received last week. On February 28, 2011 the Center for Native American Youth, a new policy program at the Aspen Institute in Washington DC, was launched. The Center’s founder is the Hon. Byron Dorgan, who retired as U.S. Senator for North Dakota at the end of last year. Sen. Dorgan was a champion for youth while serving as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
Sen. Dorgan’s commitment to youth suicide prevention and improving mental health services in Indian Country was clear at a hearing and follow-up meeting he organized less than a year ago. At that time, he announced that although he was not seeking re-election after nearly 20 years in the Senate, he was planning to continue his outspoken advocacy for “the First Americans”. I was one of a number of advocates who presented testimony at the hearing and I wondered what the senator had in mind. Now we have his answer. The Center for Native American Youth is designed to work with tribal leaders and national organizations to help bring effective health, mental health and education programs to Native American young people. I think it’s a terrific idea and a great next step in dealing with a terrible tragedy.
The need for action is painfully clear. Indian youth have the highest rate of suicide of any population in the country—3 and ½ times the national average. In some tribal communities, this rate rises to epidemic levels—up to 10 times the national average! It’s a shameful national failure.
Yet this ongoing devastation of young lives is “below the radar” for many public health officials. The Center for Native American Youth seeks to change this historic neglect into organized action. TeenScreen has worked for many years to offer help. Along with dedicated local TeenScreen program leaders in Oklahoma, North Dakota, and Arizona, we’ve seen first hand the tough realities facing youth in Indian Country. I’m excited that the new Center will bring needed attention and critical resources to support our colleagues’ life-saving work.