A Sad Situation from Rural America We Cannot Ignore

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Over the past few months we’ve seen plenty of news stories about celebrities going in and out of jail and fed-up flight attendants. But America’s 24-hour news cycle missed a painful story here in Montana.

I want you to know about this story because it reminds us that as we invest in rebuilding our economy, we still have a long way to go to improve life for kids struggling in some of our country’s most challenged communities.

On the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana, six children took their own lives this year. Four hanged themselves. One used a gun. Another stood in front of an oncoming train. One of them was ten years old.

As a father and grandfather, it’s unthinkable. And there’s more.

Over the past year, at least 20 other young members of the Fort Peck community attempted suicide. Let me repeat that: In one year, in a community stung by six child suicides, 20 more kids tried to kill themselves.

Leaders at Fork Peck are responding aggressively. The tribal council declared a state of emergency in May, and counselors have been working hard to get the upper hand on this tragic situation.

But in geographically isolated northeastern Montana — like in many areas of rural America — resources aren’t always readily available. Recruiting health professionals to serve frontier communities is challenging too. And in Indian Country, these challenges are compounded by poverty, inadequate infrastructure and sadly, a sense of hopelessness that should never afflict a ten-year-old child.

Hopelessness is not what our country is about. We live in the greatest nation in the world, where we work hard to make sure that future generations have better opportunities than we had — just like our folks did for us. All of America’s kids and their families should have somewhere to turn. Especially in places where resources are slim, and hope can be scarce.

As we approach a new year, I look forward to taking on this challenge. We need to fight like hell to make sure all our kids — no matter where they live — understand that hopelessness and despair don’t belong in any community. Not in America. Not in 2010.

Working together, we’ve already taken some important steps. Reauthorizing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act means that better health care — physical and mental — is on the way for Indian communities. The bill also opens up grants for tribes and organizations for suicide-prevention efforts.

But the first step to really addressing this tragedy is to make sure folks understand that this story from the Fort Peck Reservation is real. The more people understand the challenges facing many of our rural communities — in Montana and across the country — the better able we’ll be to make sure all of our young folks live to their fullest potential.

– Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) is a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.