What is already known about this topic?
American Indian/Alaska Natives (AI/AN) have the highest rates of suicide of any racial/ethnic group in the United States. The rates of suicide in this population have been increasing since 2003.
What is added by this report?
Analysis of National Violent Death Reporting System data from 18 states showed AI/AN suicide decedents were younger and had higher odds of living in a nonmetropolitan area than did non-Hispanic whites who died by suicide. Suicide and nonsuicide deaths of friends and family, as well as alcohol use preceding death were associated with AI/AN decedents more often than non-Hispanic white decedents.
What are the implications for public health practice?
The high prevalence of suicide among the AI/AN population and the comparative differences in suicide circumstances among AI/AN decedents illustrate some of the disparities this population faces. Focused, yet comprehensive, suicide prevention and intervention efforts are needed that incorporate culturally relevant, evidence-based strategies at the individual, interpersonal, and community levels.
CDC’s NVDRS is an active state-based surveillance system that monitors the occurrence and characteristics of violent deaths, including suicides. NVDRS links three data sources (death certificates, coroner/medical examiner reports, and law enforcement reports) to create a comprehensive picture of who dies from violence, where and when victims are injured, and what factors contributed to the victim’s death. This report includes all available 2003–2014 NVDRS data from the 18 participating states.† Analyses were limited to suicide decedents aged ≥10 years. Non-Hispanic AI/AN are defined in NVDRS as persons with ancestries of the original inhabitants of North America who maintain their cultural identification.§,¶ Non-Hispanic whites (whites) were used as a comparison group because they have the second-highest suicide rate, but concentrated among different age groups than AI/AN, allowing for comparisons that might reveal unique contributors to suicide above general risk factors. Rural-Urban Commuting Area codes were used to classify geographic areas into metropolitan and nonmetropolitan categories.** Demographics, incident characteristics, and precipitating circumstances were examined by race/ethnicity using chi-squared tests. Significant chi-squared results (p<0.05) were further examined using logistic regression, controlling for age and sex.
From 2003 to 2014, a total of 1,531 suicides among AI/AN and 103,986 among whites were collected in NVDRS (Table 1). More than one third (35.7%) of AI/AN suicides occurred among youths aged 10–24 years (9.8% aged 10–17 years, 25.9% aged 18–24 years). In contrast, 11.1% of suicides among whites were in persons aged 10–24 years (2.5% aged 10–17 years, 8.6% aged 18–24 years). More than two thirds (69.4%) of AI/AN decedents resided in nonmetropolitan areas, whereas the majority of white decedents (72.7%) resided in metropolitan areas (adjusted odds ratio [aOR] = 6.6; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 5.9–7.3). The largest proportion of both AI/AN and white decedents died by firearm (42.1% and 52.9%, respectively), with hanging/strangulation/suffocation being the next largest proportion (39.7% and 22.5%, respectively).
Circumstance information, obtained primarily through information provided by persons who knew the decedent as indicated in coroner/medical examiner reports and law enforcement reports, was known for 87.5% of AI/AN and 89.8% of white suicides (Table 2). Although intimate partner problems were a common precipitating circumstance for both AI/AN (39.1%) and white decedents (29.4%), AI/AN had significantly higher odds of experiencing this circumstance (aOR = 1.2; 95% CI = 1.1–1.3). Approximately two in 10 AI/AN suicides were preceded by an argument, compared with one in 10 white suicides (aOR = 1.4; 95% CI = 1.2–1.7). Compared with white decedents, AI/AN decedents had 2.4 times the odds of the suicide of a friend or family member affecting their death (as ascertained through a note or interviews with persons who knew the decedent) (95% CI = 1.9–3.1) and 1.7 times the odds of the nonsuicide death of a friend or family member affecting their death (95% CI = 1.4–2.1).
Current diagnosed mental health problems (aOR = 0.4; 95% CI = 0.4–0.5), depressed mood (aOR = 0.9; 95% CI = 0.8–1.0), and current mental health treatment (aOR = 0.5; 95% CI = 0.4–0.5) were less likely to be reported among AI/AN decedents than among white decedents (Table 2). Substance abuse problems other than alcohol were not significantly different between AI/AN and white decedents; however, AI/AN decedents had 1.8 times the odds of a reported alcohol problem compared with white decedents (95% CI = 1.6–2.1). In addition, AI/AN decedents were more likely to have reportedly used alcohol in the hours before death (aOR = 2.7; 95% CI = 2.4-3.0) and had more than twice the odds of a positive alcohol toxicology result (aOR = 2.1; 95% CI = 1.9–2.5) (Table 3). Among those tested, AI/AN decedents were significantly more likely to test positive for marijuana (aOR = 1.5; 95% CI = 1.2–1.8) and amphetamines (aOR = 1.4; 95% CI = 1.1–1.9), and significantly less likely to test positive for antidepressants (aOR = 0.7; 95% CI = 0.5–0.9) and opioids (aOR = 0.5; 95% CI = 0.4–0.7) than were white decedents (Table 3).
Suicide rates among AI/AN are historically higher than those of the total U.S. population (1). The results of this study are consistent with previous research on risk factors for AI/AN suicidal behaviors (3,5) and provide additional information on important circumstances and characteristics that precede suicide among AI/AN. Across many demographics, incident characteristics, and circumstances, AI/AN decedents were significantly different from whites.
Approximately 70% of AI/AN decedents resided in nonmetropolitan areas, including rural settings, underscoring the importance of implementing suicide prevention strategies in rural AI/AN communities. Residential status can affect the circumstances surrounding suicide. For example, in this study AI/AN decedents had lower odds than did white decedents of having received a mental health diagnosis or mental health treatment, even when controlling for age and sex. Rural areas often have lower availability and use of mental health services because of provider shortages†† and social barriers, including stigma and lack of culturally competent care (6). To address provider shortages, financial incentives, such as loan forgiveness for mental health practitioners, represent one strategy that could be helpful in recruiting providers for rural and nonmetropolitan areas (2). The high rate of suicides among AI/AN youths highlights the need for early prevention. School-based programs are able to reach a large number of AI/AN youths at high risk and could increase the availability of services for AI/AN in isolated nonmetropolitan areas (4). In addition, school-based programs that focus on individual life skills development and interpersonal social emotional learning programs to promote healthy relationships and conflict resolution might address the higher occurrence of intimate partner problems and arguments preceding AI/AN suicides (2,4).
AI/AN decedents were more likely to have a friend’s or family member’s suicide contribute to their death. A previous study in one AI/AN tribe found that suicidal behavior occurred close in time and within tight social networks, suggesting suicide contagion (5). Given the observation that AI/AN had an elevated risk of their own suicide being linked to the suicide death of a loved one, community level prevention strategies, including programs that focus on postvention (e.g., survivor support groups) and safe reporting of suicides by the media (e.g., not using sensationalized headlines), should be considered (http://reportingonsuicide.org/wp-content/themes/ros2015/assets/images/Recommendations-eng.pdfpdf iconexternal icon) (2).
Substance use is a recognized risk factor for suicidal behavior (4). A larger proportion of AI/AN decedents used alcohol before their suicide and had reported alcohol abuse problems. Previous studies have found that AI/AN youths aged 12–17 years have the highest rates of alcohol use among all racial/ethnic groups (4). Community-based programs to reduce excessive alcohol use (e.g., enforcement of laws prohibiting sales to minors and increasing alcohol taxes) and individual-level programs for persons at various risk levels, such as improved access to substance abuse treatment and life skills development programs for youths are necessary (1,4,7). Differences in the prevalence of alcohol use, interpersonal problems, and access to mental health treatment among AI/AN might be symptoms of disproportionate exposure to poverty, historical trauma, and other contexts of inequity and should not be viewed as inherent to AI/AN culture (4,8).
The findings in this report are subject to at least five limitations. First, race of AI/AN decedents is often misclassified on death certificates resulting in underascertainment of AI/AN mortality, including suicide (9). Second, tribal affiliation is not collected in NVDRS. Thus, the heterogeneity of AI/AN tribes and the cultural differences between these communities could not be assessed, and results might not be generalizable across all AI/AN communities. Future studies are needed to identify risk and protective factors for suicide that might be unique to individual tribes or communities. Third, it was not possible to determine whether decedents resided on tribal reservations based on the available information. Fourth, mental health diagnoses and treatment status are based on informant reports and could be underreported for either or both groups. Finally, NVDRS data were available from 18 states as of the time of this report and are therefore not necessarily representative of suicides outside these areas.
Prior research suggests comprehensive suicide prevention strategies designed to address the specific needs of an AI/AN community are associated with reductions in suicide (10
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center. Suicide among racial/ethnic populations in the U.S.: American Indians/Alaska Natives. Waltham, MA: Education Development Center, Inc.; 2013.
- Stone DM, Holland KM, Bartholow B, Crosby AE, Davis S, Wilkins N. Preventing suicide: a technical package of policies, programs and practices. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, CDC; 2017.
- Wexler L, Silveira ML, Bertone-Johnson E. Factors associated with Alaska Native fatal and nonfatal suicidal behaviors 2001–2009: trends and implications for prevention. Arch Suicide Res 2012;16:273–86. CrossRefexternal icon PubMedexternal icon
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, US Department of Health and Human Services. To live to see the great day that dawns: preventing suicide by American Indian and Alaska Native youth and young adults. Rockville, MD: US Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services; 2010.
- Cwik M, Barlow A, Tingey L, et al. Exploring risk and protective factors with a community sample of American Indian adolescents who attempted suicide. Arch Suicide Res 2015;19:172–89. CrossRefexternal icon PubMedexternal icon
- Oetzel J, Duran B, Lucero J, et al. Rural American Indians’ perspectives of obstacles in the mental health treatment process in three treatment sectors. Psychol Serv 2006;3:117–28. CrossRefexternal icon
- CDC. The Community Guide: excessive alcohol consumption. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, CDC; 2017. https://www.thecommunityguide.org/topic/excessive-alcohol-consumption?field_recommendation_tid=All&items_per_page=5&page=1external icon
- Evans-Campbell T. Historical trauma in American Indian/Native Alaska communities: a multilevel framework for exploring impacts on individuals, families, and communities. J Interpers Violence 2008;23:316–38. CrossRefexternal icon PubMedexternal icon
- Arias E, Heron M, Hakes J; National Center for Health Statistics; US Census Bureau. The validity of race and Hispanic origin reporting on death certificates in the United States: an update. Vital Health Stat 2 2016;172:1–21. PubMedexternal icon
- Cwik MF, Tingey L, Maschino A, et al. Decreases in suicide deaths and attempts linked to the White Mountain Apache suicide surveillance and prevention system, 2001–2012. Am J Public Health 2016;106:2183–9. CrossRefexternal icon PubMedexternal icon
Suggested citation for this article: Leavitt RA, Ertl A, Sheats K, Petrosky E, Ivey-Stephenson A, Fowler KA. Suicides Among American Indian/Alaska Natives — National Violent Death Reporting System, 18 States, 2003–2014. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2018;67:237–242. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6708a1external icon.
MMWR and Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report are service marks of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Use of trade names and commercial sources is for identification only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services.
References to non-CDC sites on the Internet are
provided as a service to MMWR readers and do not constitute or imply
endorsement of these organizations or their programs by CDC or the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services. CDC is not responsible for the content
of pages found at these sites. URL addresses listed in MMWR were current as of
the date of publication.
All HTML versions of MMWR articles are generated from final proofs through an automated process.
This conversion might result in character translation or format errors in the HTML version.
Users are referred to the electronic PDF version (https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr)
and/or the original MMWR paper copy for printable versions of official text, figures, and tables.
Questions or messages regarding errors in formatting should be addressed to