As temperatures dropped below zero on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation earlier this month, one young girl felt she had had enough.
She was tired of feeling cold inside her home as temperatures plummeted, which they do often there. She had enough of watching her parents constantly struggle to scrounge up wood to heat the house.
The 12-year-old girl went to the bathroom and tried to kill herself.
“She was tired of waking up cold,” Jimmy Two Bulls, a Pine Ridge resident who’s helping out the girl’s family, told HuffPost. “Reservation life is a hard life to live. It’s a struggle.”
Suicides reached record highs in South Dakota last year. Oglala Lakota County, which is where the Pine Ridge reservation is located, was one of five counties in the state with the highest rates of suicide. People who have experience dealing with depression and suicide on the reservation say this is tied, in part, to the devastatingly difficult conditions residents face.
While there’s no indication that suicides increase during the winter, local experts say winter’s relentless conditions can lead to feelings of despair. A 2016 study conducted through the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs found that there’s a close correlation between poverty rates and suicide rates in the U.S.
“It’s tough, and it all builds up,” Eileen Janis, 57, who co-runs Oglala Sioux Tribe Suicide Prevention, told HuffPost. “And you say: ‘To hell with it. I just want to die.’”
Pine Ridge, South Dakota: Youth suicide on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation remains a pressing concern. Oglala Sioux Tribe Suicide Prevention, the reservation’s sole suicide prevention program, conducts outreach and collaborates with health professionals and religious leaders to place those at risk into appropriate programs.
Janis’s organization is the reservation’s sole suicide prevention group, and she and just one other counselor, Yvonne DeCory, serve the reservation’s 40,000 residents.
Both women keep their phones on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. DeCory said they may get calls about three or four suicide attempts a night, year round.
Pine Ridge, which is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, is in the third-poorest county in the United States. It’s home to the Oglala Lakota, a tribe that’s part of the Sioux people. Per capita income in the county is $9,150, and 80 percent of residents are unemployed.
The pervasive poverty forces residents to make impossible choices: whether to pay to heat a home or buy enough food to feed the family, for example.
Suicide is the most severe risk advocates worry about during the winter. But it’s not the only one. People living without heat are also susceptible to hypothermia, and older members of the community are particularly vulnerable because their health could already be compromised. Those who rely on space heaters run the danger of starting a house fire. Children who don’t have access to sufficient heat struggle to sleep at night and then aren’t able to concentrate in school, Alice Phelps, 47, principal of the Wounded Knee School District, told HuffPost.
“The children act up at school. But when we talk to them one-on-one, the bottom line is they didn’t sleep that night,” Phelps, who grew up on the reservation, said. “They’ll say: ‘I didn’t have a blanket. I gave it to my little sister. I was cold.’ It just breaks your heart.”
Winter is also the time children appreciate school the most, because the building is heated and they’re guaranteed at least one hot meal. Attendance is near perfect at this time of year, Phelps said.
“They want to be in school,” Phelps said. “It’s warm. It’s safe. Their immediate needs are met.