The Connection Between Indigenous Heritage And Mental Health

The Connection Between Indigenous Heritage And Mental Health
Addiction November 5, 2021
Author: Ilana Jael

November may be most known for the concluding Thanksgiving holiday, but it’s also National American Indian Heritage Month, also known as Native American Heritage Month. Established in 1990 by then president George H. W Bush, this holiday aims to celebrate the unique and rich cultural heritage of Native American peoples, also sometimes referred to as “first” or “indigenous” Americans. However, from an awareness standpoint, it’s also worth talking about the fact that statistics have shown that people with indigenous heritage have a notably higher incidence of various mental health problems.

Causes Of Poor Mental Health Among People With Indigenous Heritage

Around one and a half percent of the United States’ population identify as having Native American ancestry. Indigenous peoples lived and thrived in what would later be labeled America for centuries. But when Europeans began to encroach, their efforts to overtake quickly became harmful, as Native Americans were displaced and separated from the lands they considered sacred and forced instead to walk a hazardous “trail of tears” toward less desirable areas, with thousands dying on the journey. 

For much of the 1800s, Native American children were also separated from their families and forced into boarding schools in a misguided attempt to culturally assimilate them. They were encouraged to abandon their tribal traditions and instead forced to attend church and learn English. Often, they would lose their grasp on their Native language as a result, further fragmenting indigenous families and cultural structures as children lost their ability to communicate with their elders.

Partially due to the long lasting effects of the generational trauma described above, a disproportionate amount of people with Native American Heritage live in poverty, which is its own risk factor for poor mental health. As opposed to 10.5 percent of the total US population, 26.6 percent of indigenous people live in poverty. Indigenous people are also twice as likely to be unemployed, and frequently report experiencing racism and discrimination.

How Indigenous People Are Affected

In any given month, indigenous people are more than twice as likely as others to report experiencing serious psychological distress, and about nineteen percent of the indigenous population reports experiencing mental illness in any given year. 

Their suicide rate is also notably high, particularly among indigenous Americans between 15 and 19, who die of suicide at twice the rate of white Americans from the same age group. Native American women also experience some of the highest rates of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, feeding into an ongoing epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women. 

Finally, Native Americans also are disproportionately affected by substance abuse. They begin using both alcohol and illicit drugs at younger ages than do other groups and go on to use them at the highest rates nationwide, with one in five Native Americans aged 18-25 suffering from an alcohol or other substance abuse disorder. 

Treating Mental Health Issues Among Indigenous Populations

Unfortunately, many of the issues that contribute to mental health issues among Native Americans also interfere with treatment. Many live in rural areas that are physically distant from treatment providers, poverty fuels lack of insurance and lack of access to care, and, understandably, many Native Americans are distrustful of Western culture and medicine. 

Another obstacle is presented by the stigmatization of mental illness within Native culture and the potential for symptoms of mental illness to present in an unconventional way because of their cultural differences. Native Americans thus may be more likely to visit a spiritual or traditional healer than a traditional psychologist, which may not be sufficient depending on the type of problem and its severity.

For instance, a serious substance abuse problem is likely to require more professional treatment, such as that offered by the Reco Institute and our associated inpatient treatment program. Our sober living options offer a convenient and enriching housing option that promotes an atmosphere of community and understanding, and our holistic treatment program has proven to be a good fit for a variety of diverse clients, including those from indigenous backgrounds. To learn more about our program and sober living options, feel free to call us today at 561-665-5925.

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