Native American Heritage Day: What You May Not Know About Indigenous Mental Health

Think of the words “Native American” and “Indian.” What do you picture?

Thanksgiving? Disney’s Pocahantas painting with all the colors of the wind? Do you think of men in feather headdresses in history books or the water protectors at Standing Rock?

November is Native American Heritage Month and November 24th is Native American Heritage Day. Despite my pale skin and Irish last name, I happen to be indigenous (I am Ani-Yun’ wiya, more specifically, the Cherokee Nation). In honor of this day, I wanted to bring attention to some issues that affect the mental health of American Indians and Alaskan Natives (AI/AN).

1. Stereotypes

Whether done with or without ill intent, stereotyping is harmful to us. We’re often lumped together as one single group, but we’re made up of independent tribes with unique cultures and languages. We may use various terms to describe ourselves (indigenous, native, Indian, etc.), but most of us self-identify by our tribes.

2. Belonging to Two or More Cultures

It’s hard to adjust to life with multiple cultures. For those of us who don’t live on reservations, we don’t have the built-in support system and connection with our culture that exists on reservations. Similarly, it can be difficult to get used to living in a city and navigating through non-native society if you grew up on a reservation.

3. Historical Trauma

Racism and violence against NA/AN is unfortunately a part of our country’s history. Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, an Oglala Lakota social worker, researcher, and professor, created the term “historical trauma” to describe the “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma”. Other groups who experience historical trauma include survivors of the Holocaust and Japanese American internment camps and their descendants. Historical trauma is very real for us and the wounds of the past can impact our current mental health.

4. Racism

Violent and non-violent racism still impacts us today. People of other races wear feather headdresses (knockoffs of war bonnets) for fun while many indigenous high school students can’t wear their eagle feathers at graduation. We’re often labeled as appearing “too native” or “not native enough,” with the latter harming indigenous people of mixed race. Much of our lands (including sacred burial grounds) have been desecrated and one out of 10 AI/AN has been a victim of violence. Two-spirits are often misunderstood and discriminated against. Being treated differently because of our ethnicitie and seeing our cultures and history mocked takes a toll on us.

5. Health Inequities

Health inequities are differences in health that are considered avoidable, unfair, and unjust. We’re all aware of the lack of mental health funding nationwide, but are you aware of the funding gap for Indian Health Service? The IHS is a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) that is underfunded. In 2013, IHS per capita expenditures for patient health services were just $2,849, compared to $7,717 per person for health care spending nationally, with some IHS areas receiving less than 59% of what is spent on healthcare for non-IHS areas. As a result, many IHS facilities are outdated or have been closed, causing many indigenous folks to not have access to life-saving healthcare, including mental health services.

6. Health Disparities

A health disparity is a difference in health outcomes that is closely linked with economic, social, or environmental disadvantage. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),  NA/AN have the highest percentage of current heavy alcohol users compared to other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., a suicide rate for adolescents and young adults ages 15 to 34 that is 1.5 times higher than the national average for that age group, and a life expectancy that is 4.4 years less than all US races. According to RAINN, NA/AN are twice as likely to experience a rape/sexual assault compared to all races and per CDC data, are also statistically more likely than any other racial group to be killed by law enforcement. These health disparities could be prevented if NA/AN has more social, economic, and political equity and racism against us was taken more seriously.

Despite these obstacles, we Native Americans and Alaskan Natives are resilient people by nature. Chickasaw writer and professor Linda Hogan stated it best, “Some people see scars, and it is wounding they remember. To me they are proof of the fact that there is healing.” If you’re not indigenous, please respect our unique and valid experiences. Serve as an ally in our battle for equity by holding people accountable for discriminatory words/actions and stand up for our rights. If you are native/indigenous, please know that you don’t have to go through your struggles alone. Below is a list of useful resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

American Indian/Alaskan Native suicide prevention resources: http://www.sprc.org/settings/aian

StrongHearts Native Helpline (for indigenous survivors of domestic violence and family members):  1−844-762-8483 http://www.strongheartshelpline.org/

Mending the Sacred Hoop: http://mshoop.org/about-us/

National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center: http://www.niwrc.org/

November 22, 2017
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