Native American youth are dying by their own hands at a rate higher than in other racial/ethnic groups. You might already know this. Headlines and news stories every few years focus attention on the issue, usually after a cluster of children or youth decide to take their lives in one of New Mexico’s small towns or communities.
By any measure, the suicide rate among young Native Americans is a crisis. But you wouldn’t know this judging by the issues that generate the most conversation among our state’s public officials or news stories that offer glancing coverage. I’m speaking of the broader community I know as New Mexico, not of New Mexico’s tribal communities, where people can’t escape this grim reality and where work is being done to combat the crisis. But aren’t we all part of the same community, whether we live in Albuquerque, or Jal, or Shiprock, or Anthony, or Jemez? That is, if we believe the rhetoric about community and how community takes care of its most vulnerable, which is a well-established criterion by which one assesses the moral health of a community.
I wonder why the topic registers scant attention outside certain pockets of New Mexico’s population. Could it be that many of us find day-to-day life tough enough without having to ponder the stomach-churning statistics around teen suicide? A thousand concerns cloud our minds. If we are parents, we worry about our children making their way in this life. If others rely on us financially, we fret about keeping a job in an era of so much economic uncertainty. Then there’s the randomness of life as unexpected surprises or shocks compete for our focus.
I get it. For many of us there is only so much emotional or financial resources to go around.
As for the media, we live in an age of smaller newsroom staffs and diminished resources with which they can focus a light on compelling but complicated stories. And the Native American youth suicide issue is complex. Just getting a handle on the true contours of the crisis presents a challenge.
During the reporting of this series, New Mexico In Depth found that two databases maintained by separate state agencies have differing totals for Native American teen suicides over a period of time.
New Mexico in Depth’s analysis suggests something else, too: both databases underestimate the true number of Native lives lost to suicide. Without better data collection, however, no one can know the true extent of the problem – and young Native people across New Mexico will continue to die.
While it might not seem like it from reading headlines day-in, day-out, the heart of journalism beats with hope. The best of the tradition identifies a problem with the anticipation that its audience will seize on the importance of a subject and bring to bear a collective focus on the challenge.
It is with that hope that NMID offers this series in a spirit of both humility and gratitude: Humility because as hard as we’ve worked, we know we haven’t captured the full picture of the sheer scale of human loss; and gratitude for all the people who opened their doors to us as we reported and wrote about this important, difficult subject.