WOLF POINT, Mont. — Fallen pine cones covered 16-year-old Leslie Keiser’s fresh grave at the edge of Wolf Point, a small community on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation on the eastern Montana plains.
Leslie, whose father is a member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, is one of at least two teenagers on the reservation who died by suicide this summer. A third teen’s death is under investigation, authorities said.
Leslie’s mother, Natalie Keiser, was standing beside the grave recently when she received a text with a photo of the headstone she had ordered.
She looked at her phone and then back at the grave of the girl who took her own life in September.
“I wish she would have reached out and let us know what was wrong,” she said.
In a typical year, Native American youth die by suicide at nearly twice the rate of their white peers in the U.S. Mental health experts worry that the isolation and shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could make things worse.
“It has put a really heavy spirit on them, being isolated and depressed and at home with nothing to do,” said Carrie Manning, a project coordinator at the Fort Peck Tribes’ Spotted Bull Recovery Resource Center.
It’s not clear what connection the pandemic has to the youth suicides on the Fort Peck reservation. Leslie had attempted suicide once before several years ago, but she had been in counseling and seemed to be feeling better, her mother said.
Keiser noted that Leslie’s therapist canceled her counseling sessions before the pandemic hit.
“Probably with the virus it would have been discontinued anyway,” Keiser said. “It seems like things that were important were kind of set to the wayside.”
Tribal members typically lean on one another in times of crisis, but this time is different. The reservation is a COVID hot spot. In remote Roosevelt County, which encompasses most of the reservation, more than 10% of the population has been infected with the coronavirus. The resulting social distancing has led tribal officials to worry the community will fail to see warning signs among at-risk youth.
So tribal officials are focusing their suicide prevention efforts on finding ways to help those kids remotely.
“Our people have been through hardships and they’re still here, and they’ll still be here after this one as well,” said Don Wetzel, tribal liaison for the Montana Office of Public Instruction and a member of the Blackfeet Nation. “I think if you want to look at resiliency in this country, you look at our Native Americans.”
Poverty, high rates of substance abuse, limited health care and crowded households elevate both physical and mental health risks for residents of reservations.
“It’s those conditions where things like suicide and pandemics like COVID are able to just decimate tribal people,” said Teresa Brockie, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the White Clay Nation from Fort Belknap, Montana.
Montana has seen 231 suicides this year, with the highest rates occurring in rural counties. Those numbers aren’t much different from a typical year, said Karl Rosston, suicide prevention coordinator for the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services. The