For Native Americans, Mental Health Budget Cuts Hit Hard : Code Switch Suicide rates among Native Americans are already four times the national average. And with recent cuts in federal funding for mental health services across the country, suicide prevention programs may lose ground in the communities that need them most.
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For Native Americans, Mental Health Budget Cuts Hit Hard

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For Native Americans, Mental Health Budget Cuts Hit Hard

For Native Americans, Mental Health Budget Cuts Hit Hard

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Mental health services are among the government programs being hit by sequestration, those five percent across the board federal budget cuts. Suicide prevention is part of mental health, and a cut in that funding is especially troubling for American Indian communities, where suicide rates are four times the national average. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Emmy Burruel still calls a sheep camp on the Navajo Nation home, even though she lives outside the reservation in Flagstaff. A couple years ago, she and her husband were fixing up their guest room when they received a phone call.

EMMY BURRUEL: My mom is crying hysterically, and she's, you know, she's like we found your brother. And I'm like, what do you mean you found my brother? And she says, he's gone. You know, he hung himself.

MORALES: Burruel and her husband packed up the kids in the middle of the night and drove three hours to be with her mother. Burruel says she wishes she would've recognized the signs of her brother's depression - the red flags she sees so clearly now.

BURRUEL: I should've asked or I should've intervened somehow. But on the flip side of the coin is you can't blame yourself because you just can't. You can't put yourself in that place.

MORALES: Instead, she helps others see the signs. Today she teaches suicide prevention workshops like this one to counselors, community leaders and social workers.

BURRUEL: I know for me being Navajo and coming from Navajo culture, you know, there's a lot of tabooism around it. You know, the cultural aspect of you don't talk about death.

MORALES: In the 19th century, many American Indian tribes gave up much of their land to the federal government in exchange for promises of funded health care, education and housing. But time and again those funds have been cut. And the recent sequester is no exception. At a Senate Committee hearing last spring in Washington, the National Indian Health Board's chairperson, Cathy Abramson, raised her concerns.

CATHY ABRAMSON: Since the beginning of the year there have been 100 suicide attempts in 110 days on Pine Ridge. Because of sequestration, they will not be able to hire two mental health service providers. We can't take any more cuts. We just can't.

BRANDY JUDSON: This is a long term problem that is going to take decades.

MORALES: Brandy Judson runs the suicide prevention program at Native Americans for Community Action. It provides free or low cost mental and physical health care in Flagstaff.

JUDSON: This isn't a three year job. You know, you don't do suicide prevention for three years and fix the problem.

MORALES: Judson says they need funding to sustain the program. Eighty percent of her organization's budget comes from the federal government. And she says she's seen its impact. Judson knows how effective suicide prevention can be when fully funded.

JUDSON: Having done a screening in a school and identified several youth who had either prior attempts or extreme thoughts of suicide, seeing them now almost a year later having gone through counseling and feeling much better, and no longer having those thoughts, it's really powerful.

MORALES: It's been three years since Emmy Burruel lost her brother to suicide. Today she feels she's in the right place to help others.

BURRUEL: I heard one shaman say you have to know a little bit about the bad to fix the good. I suffered the bad, so now I need to know I can fix the good and help other families.

MORALES: But she says because of sequestration, suicide prevention programs will reach fewer people. For NPR News I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.


MONTAGNE: That story came to us from Fronteras, a public radio collaboration reporting on the Southwest. It's NPR News.

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