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Historical Trauma and Native Suicide

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

Suicide is a significant public health problem that accounts for nearly 30 000 deaths each year in the United States. Suicide disproportionately affects Native Americans, and young indigenous males have the greatest risk. In some areas across America, Native adolescents complete suicide at a rate of 17 times the US average. Adolescence is a developmentally sensitive time in the lives of children; and, American Indian adolescents are in a precarious position as they not only stand at the crossroads between childhood and adulthood but also must navigate between their native culture and that of the dominant culture. This stands in marked contrast to the patterns of nonindigenous suicide in the United States, where the rates for death by suicide among non-Native populations peak in older adulthood (Ballard et al., 2015). These disparities suggest diverse motivations and meanings for suicidal behavior across cultural and demographic divides, underscoring the need for culturally specific interventions.

American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities display an explicit association between suicide and community-level factors, indicating a need for a broader approach to prevention. Indigenous suicide is associated with cultural assassinations; explicitly, culture loss, and a collective suffering centered on generational poverty. Areas that have lower suicide rates have increased community empowerment, school and community connectedness, and cultural affinity.

Suicide in indigenous communities is frequently identified as the terminal outcome of historical oppression, current injustice, and ongoing social suffering. Indigenous societies’ concept of personhood differs from Western ideas. Suicide can be understood as a way of expressing social distress and despair. This orientation is consistent with tribal associations between suicide and culture loss, historical trauma, and social suffering.

Historical trauma has been defined as cultural stress and grief that is related to genocide and racism that have been generalized, internalized, and institutionalized. This form of trauma has been described as both historical and ongoing and as cumulative and unresolved. Without a resolution, indigenous people can be seen as sometimes misattributing their present struggles to personal and collective failings rather than to oppressive systems and structures that results in unresolved disenfranchised grief.

Doka (1998) defined disenfranchised grief as "the grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported" (p.4). Doka further argues that experiencing grief in western European cultures is only recognized when there is a close relationship between the individuals (1998). Brave Heart (2003) argues that the principles of disenfranchised grief help explain the phenomenon of unresolved grief among Native Americans and manifests itself in sadness, anger, and shame. The concept of shame is a powerful inward emotion and how individuals cope with the symptoms of shame determines the physiological outcomes (Harder, 1995; Nathanson, 1992).

IINII uses a revolutionary Design Thinking process to help your mental health organization or school community gain an understanding of one’s sense of self, as well as developing an understanding of students’ values; having an understanding of one’s values matters because research has shown that it is linked to better well-being, less stress, and increased confidence in one’s ability to succeed.

Understanding students’ values can be developed with culturally sustaining practices that reflect a student’s identity and experience. Particularly helpful is focusing efforts on cultural competence and relevance and providing opportunities for students to practice bridging differences between diverse identities in a safe environment. To learn how you can create a dynamic youth-centered environment , visit our website at, or contact us at or 1800-507-2502.

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