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Fort Belknap

Fort Belknap is located along U.S. Highway 2 in north-central Montana. The Fort Belknap Indian Community Council sent out a press release Thursday declaring a state of emergency “related to recent youth and adult suicides on the Fort Belknap Reservation.”

Three deaths in late June and early July and a series of suicide attempts on the Fort Belknap Reservation have prompted the tribal government to declare a state of emergency.

The Fort Belknap Indian Community Council sent out a press release Thursday declaring a state of emergency “related to recent youth and adult suicides on the Fort Belknap Reservation.”

During the past 18 months the reservation has seen an upward trend of suicides in both youths and adults, it states. But, the last three months have exponentially spiked, Connie Filesteel said. Filesteel works with the Indian Community Council on special projects.

Those suicides, both attempted and completed, have mostly occurred with teens and young adults, Filesteel said. In the past month the reservation has been seeing a “suicide contagion,” or cluster of suicides — “when you see one happening then multiple are attempting as well,” she said. “A big issue is that contagion spreading via social media with the suicide attempts.”

Filesteel was unable to give a concrete number for suicides or attempts in the past 18 months. Anecdotally, at least 15 youths attempted suicide in the past month.

“That’s part of the challenge. We don’t have accurate stats,” she said. “The Indian Health Service pretty much takes care of those stats, but we’re dealing with access to stats as well as the accuracy of those.”

Montana is already ranked the highest state for suicide than any other in the nation. Montana’s Native Americans top that list.

Native youths, ages 11 to 24, are five times more likely to die by suicide than non-Natives, according to data from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.

The rate for Native American youths is 42.82 deaths by suicide per 100,000 deaths in Montana. Comparatively the statewide suicide rate is 8 per 100,000 deaths for the same age group. 

And for the under-resourced reservation, the story is now different. Suicide is becoming a crisis.

There are about 7,000 enrolled Fort Belknap tribal members, which includes the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes, with about 5,800 living on or near the Fort Belknap Reservation.

Isolation, historical trauma and drug abuse are three key causes that the Indian Community Council has identified as contributing factors to the increase of suicides, according to the release.

There aren't many resources available for those needing intervention or struggling with substance abuse; existing resources are overburdened and understaffed, Filesteel said.

That’s the goal with the emergency resolution. The declaration will put the reservation on the fast track for certain grants and open up some tribal funding for mental health, law enforcement and social services, Filesteel said.

“It’s similar to the state declaring a state of emergency for a natural disaster or a weather instance. It has to do with danger that our people are in. It's imminent peril,” said Alissa Snow, public relations and policy analyst for the council.

Neither Snow nor Filesteel knew exactly what funding the tribes might get, or where the funding would go.

“The intent is just to get more funding ... for our law enforcement, mental health and more professionals,” Snow said.

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Night Reporter

General assignment reporter for The Billings Gazette.