PINE RIDGE, S.D. (AP) — The only suicide prevention outreach program on a South Dakota Indian reservation where at least 20 people have killed themselves this year will end in December due to lack of funding, tribal officials said Friday.
The move comes after a federal agency denied the Oglala Sioux Tribe's application for a grant that would have paid for the program on the Pine Ridge reservation for five more years. A copy of the application obtained by The Associated Press shows the tribe was seeking more than $3.6 million for a revamped program. However, federal officials rated the application poorly.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration gave the reservation the opportunity to make changes, but tribal officials didn't read the rejection letter until weeks after receiving it, when it was too late, Kevin Steele, spokesman for the Oglala Sioux Tribe said.
The Sweetgrass Program has cost about $480,000 per year for three years. Yvonne "Tiny" DeCory, a suicide-prevention outreach worker, said the tribe is now asking the federal agency to approve an extension that would allow the tribe to spend close to $200,000 of unused funds from its current grant.
Under the program, outreach workers operate a hotline, respond to emergency suicide calls around the clock and provide suicide prevention training at schools. The outreach workers also help people who have attempted suicide navigate the behavioral health system: They take them to the emergency room, visit them at the hospital's mental health unit, make sure prescriptions get filled, and sometimes, even drive family members to visit a relative who's under supervision. The program also helps families whose relatives have killed themselves.
"This is very frustrating because we are in a state of emergency," DeCory said. "We are No. 1 in suicides in Indian Country."
Among the weaknesses that the federal agency found with the application was that it did not "describe its plan for maintaining and/or improving the provision of high quality services that are cost effective throughout the life of the grant." The most serious criticism was regarding performance measurement, with the agency saying the application "does not describe how achievement of the goals will produce meaningful results" for the community.
Suicide has been a persistent problem on the reservation for years, but a string of recent deaths among adolescents has shaken the impoverished community. The youngest to die by suicide since December was 12.
Tribal leaders, school officials, students and parents point to a host of problems, including bullying on social media and at school, troubled family lives and a sense of hopelessness due to lack of economic opportunities and high unemployment rates.
Somewhere between 16,000 and 40,000 members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe live on the reservation, which was the site of the Wounded Knee massacre, in which the 7th Cavalry slaughtered about 300 tribe members in 1890. At over 2 million acres, the reservation is among the nation's largest. It includes the county with the highest poverty rate in the U.S., and some of the worst rates of alcoholism and drug abuse, violence and unemployment.
Nearly 1,000 suicide attempts were recorded on the reservation between 2004 and 2013.
U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, who was in Pine Ridge Friday specifically to address the suicide crisis, said her office will ask the federal agency to grant the tribe's extension request.
"We are going to see what we can do to get them that authorization, and then I think we have to renew the grant. This is something that we have to maintain."
DeCory says she will continue to do outreach work even without pay.
"Our children are in a crisis; our children are taking their own lives," DeCory said, fighting back tears. "This isn't just a job."
Regina Garcia Cano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/reginagarciakNO