Suicide and American Indians/Alaskan Natives

Between 1999 and 2004 there were five reported suicides among Native Americans in Tennessee, at a rate of 4.81 per 100,000. This is lower than the national American Indian/Alaskan Native (AI/AN) rate of 10.85 per 100.000, which itself is slightly higher than the overall U.S rate of 10.75 per 100,000.

  • During this period, suicide was the eighth-leading cause of death among Native Americans in Tennessee and nationally and the second-leading cause within the 10-34 age group.
  • Of the five reported AI/AN suicide deaths in Tennessee between 1999 and 2004, two involved firearms, two involved suffocation, and one involved poisoning. Nationally, firearms are a factor in only 42.2% of Native American suicide deaths, followed closely by suffocation at 38.1%.
  • The 2001 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 16% of Native American youth attending Bureau of Indian Affairs schools in 2001 had attempted suicide in the 12 months preceding the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
  • From 1999 to 2004, AI/AN males aged 15-24 had the highest suicide rate at 27.99 per 100,000, compared to white (17.54 per 100,000), black (12.80 per 100,000), and Asian/Pacific Islander (8.96 per 100,000) males of the same age.
  • Compared with other racial and ethnic groups, AI/AN youth have a higher incidence of mental health disorders related to suicide, such as anxiety, substance abuse, and depression.
  • Mental health services are not easily accessible to large segments of the AI/AN population due to lack of funding on the state and federal level. Available services often do not account for the unique sociocultural issues of this group, and there are few evidence-based programs that are adapted for AI/AN cultures. Furthermore, those services that do serve Native Americans are prone to professional shortages and high turnover. Hence, members of this group tend to underutilize mental health services and discontinue therapy.
  • According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Native Americans continue to experience higher rates of poverty, poor educational achievement, substandard housing, and disease. Additionally, elements of acculturation—mission and boarding schools, weakened parental influence, and dislocation from native lands—have undermined tribal unity and have removed many safeguards against suicide that Native American culture might have ordinarily provided.
  • The most significant protective factors against suicide attempts among Native American youth are discussion of problems with family or friends and connectedness to family.
  • Research indicates that culturally sensitive programs that strengthen family ties, especially those that address substance abuse, have the potential to protect against suicide among Native American adolescents.
  • A study of American Indians living on reservations found that tribal spiritual Orientation was a strong protective factor; individuals with a strong tribal spiritual orientation were half as likely to report a suicide attempt in their lifetimes.

In this fact sheet, the term “American Indians and Alaska Natives” includes many racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. TSPN has opted to use the term because most data and research uses this category. When specific sources refer to Native Americans, that term is used.

Sources: Tennessee Department of Health; US Department of Health and Human Services; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Journal of School Health; Trauma, Violence, and Abuse; Professional Psychology: Research and Practice; U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; Aggression and Violent Behavior; Suicide Prevention Resource Center; Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine; Social Science and Medicine.