Tag Archives: Native American Heritage Day

Indigenous (AI/AN) Mental Health

Artwork: Dr. Siddique private collection

The Western concept of mental health illnesses may often not correspond with the beliefs and interpretations of AI/AN cultures. For example, the words “depressed” and “anxious” are absent from some native languages where alternative expressions such as “ghost sickness” or “heartbreak syndrome” are present. The context is crucial for treatment by mental and medical health professionals.

Many tribal cultures embrace the notions of interconnectedness; balancing the mind, body, and spirit. Highlighting one’s well-being is entwined with cultural identity, family, nature and earth, and a connection to the past. Research suggests that indigenous persons with symptoms of anxiety and depression may seek help from other sources; including traditional and spiritual healers.

The shared history of trauma caused by colonialism for the indigenous and native populations is believed to be a factor in the reports of 2.5 times more experiences of serious psychological distress in AI/AN populations compared to non-indigenous populations. Having an accurate and non-defensive understanding of colonization is necessary in understanding the unique place that Indigenous communities hold in history and how this can impact mental health and medical care.

Although numbers vary by tribe, the suicide death rate for AI/AN populations between the ages of 15-20 is more than double the rate of all other racial-ethnic groups at that age group. Elevated risk factors of suicide may be influenced by the fact that 26% of AI/AN communities are living in poverty, have higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse compared to all other ethnic groups, have comorbid medical problems such as diabetes at a much higher rate, and suffer the impacts of historical trauma, alienation, acculturation, discrimination, community violence, lack of access to treatment, financial hardship, family separation (a large number of indigenous children and adolescents were forcibly removed from their families and placed in boarding schools by the government), and accumulated micro-aggressions.

To approach healing, mental health programs for indigenous persons should address community and traditional knowledge, and designate historical, inter-generational, and racial incident-based trauma symptoms as legitimate injuries to mental health.

See also, “The Healing Power of Heritage.”

(Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while, a great wind carries me across the sky. Ojibwa/Chippewa saying).

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