Congress passes a landmark bill to help stop the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women
via Lorie Shaull / Flickr

The epidemic of violence against Indigenous women in America is one of the country's most disturbing trends. A major reason it persists is because it's rarely discussed outside of the native community.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, murder is the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women under age 19.

Women who live on some reservations face rates of violence that are as much as ten times higher than the national average.


The problem stems from a lack of community resources, prejudice, poverty, and poor communication between Native communities and law enforcement.

Red dress display to honor missing and murdered Indigenous women.via Kerron L / Flickr

Many women disappear from remote reservations without a single law enforcement officer. "The resources are spread so thin, it allows people to fall through the cracks," Billy J. Stratton, an expert in Native American studies at the University of Denver, told CNN.

But the problem goes much deeper than law enforcement.

"When you're talking about a group of people who is among the lowest socioeconomic class in the US, they're more susceptible to violence than others," Stratton said.

"Poverty is the main driver; dispossession, lack of empowerment, isolation, and those other social problems I think flow from that," he added.

Violence against Native people also gets very little attention from the mainstream media.

"I live on a reservation, it's word of mouth. We can report [someone missing or dead] to the authorities," Tillie Aldrich, an Omaha Tribe of Nebraska member, told Teen Vogue.

"If we have a non-Native [person] missing in a city 25 miles north of us, it's all over the news, the newspapers, posters going up," she continued. "If we have someone missing, one of our Native missing, they try to keep it quiet."

The response to cases of violence against native American women is so poor that in 2016 there were 5,712 cases reported of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, but only 116 cases were logged by the Department of Justice database.

However, a new bill passed by Congress hopes to reverse this trend in violence and law enforcement inaction.

On Monday, the House of Representatives passed Savanna's Act, which will go to the desk of President Trump for final approval.

The bill is named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe from Fargo, North Dakota. In 2017, at the age of 22, while eight months pregnant her unborn child was cut out of her womb and she was murdered. The baby survived.

The bill requires federal, state, tribal, and local law enforcement agencies to update policies and protocols to address missing or murdered Native Americans.

It also requires the U.S. Department of Justice to develop new guidelines for response to missing or murdered Native people and provide database training to law enforcement agencies at all levels.

"Savanna's Act addresses a tragic issue in Indian Country and helps establish better law enforcement practices to track, solve and prevent these crimes against Native Americans," Senator John Hoeven, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a statement.

"We appreciate our House colleagues for passing the bill today and sending it on to the president to become law," the statement continues. "At the same time, we continue working to advance more legislation like this to strengthen public safety in tribal communities and ensure victims of crime receive support and justice."

"Passage of Savanna's Act brings us one step closer to ending this epidemic by upgrading critical data and improving communication among law enforcement," Republican Representative from Montana Greg Gianforte said in a statement.

The bill is a positive first step toward combating the issue of missing and murdered Indiginous women, but much more will have to be done before the problem is solved.

"Stopping the #MMIW [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women] crisis will take years and maybe decades," Sarah Deer, Muscogee, a professor at the University of Kansas, told Teen Vogue.

"It must be a multi-faceted movement led by family members of missing Indigenous women," she added. "Those families are the experts on this crisis and should be the leaders of the movement."

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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