America Is Trying to Fix a Mental Health Crisis That It Created

Lawmakers and advocates are trying to help Native American youths, who are dying in record numbers.

(Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
(Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

By Jamilah King,

Julian Juan was only 13 when he noticed the scars. A high school freshman on the Tohono O’Odham Reservation, about an hour and a half southwest of Tucson, Arizona, Juan had a tight-knit group of seemingly gregarious friends. But even in southern Arizona’s desert heat, some of those friends wore long-sleeved shirts. Once, a friend’s sleeve rode up high enough to reveal scarred flesh.

“When I asked about it, they would say, ‘Oh, I cut myself doing yard work,’ or ‘I got caught in a fence,’ ” Juan remembered. He persistently pushed them for the truth. “They would say they were having these thoughts and would never fully explain,” he said. He could tell the people closest to him were suffering. And he wanted to do something about it.

Today, Juan is a 23-year-old junior at the University of New Mexico who serves as a youth cabinet member in the National Congress of American Indians, the largest advocacy organization for Native Americans in the country, where he’s worked with a broad coalition of young people to put mental health among tribal elders’ top concerns.

“This issue is really taboo for people in my community,” he said. “They don’t like to talk about it, and it does hurt to talk about, but it’s not going away.”

There’s a growing mental health crisis among Native American youths, and it’s being driven by poverty, violence, and lack of resources. It’s difficult to definitively assess how pervasive the problem is, partly because cultural stigma about mental illness makes it difficult for experts to access many Native American communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among Native Americans between the ages of 15 and 34—a  rate that’s two and a half times higher than the national average for that age group. The crisis appears to be afflicting Native American communities across the country.

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, nearly 1,000 suicide attempts were reported between 2004 and 2013. In roughly the same period, the local hospital has apparently treated more than 240 people under age 19 who planned or tried to commit suicide.

The crisis is getting national attention. Earlier this month, First Lady Michelle Obama touted the Generation Indigenous Native Youth Challenge, a White House–backed initiative with the U.S. Department of the Interior. The initiative has the lofty goal  of “removing the barriers that stand between Native youth and their opportunity to succeed.”

The first lady outlined a “long history of systemic discrimination and abuse,” ranging from 19th-century laws that forcibly removed Native Americans from their land to the early-20th-century boarding schools that meticulously extinguished many tribes’ language and culture. Those injustices set the tone for the dire situation in many of today’s tribal communities. Here are the statistics, according to the American Psychiatric Association: Native Americans are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than the rest of the U.S. population. They’re also nearly twice as likely as to suffer psychological distress, usually in the form of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Given this history, we shouldn’t be surprised at the challenges that kids in Indian Country are facing today,” the first lady said. “And we should never forget that we played a role in this. Make no mistake about it—we own this.”

In November 2014, a U.S. Justice Department task force, led by retired Democratic U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, submitted a report to Attorney General Eric Holder outlining several actions that could help address the trauma experienced by Native American children. The task force recommended that a Native American Affairs Office be fully staffed within the White House Domestic Policy Council and more federal money be spent on funding tribal criminal and civil prosecutions.

People working in tribal communities are searching for answers. Sheri Lesansee is program manager of New Mexico’s Native American Suicide Prevention Clearinghouse. She says that understanding the diversity of 22 tribal communities is key to accessing their needs. “The outreach and technical assistance really does have to be tailored to meet the needs of that community,” Lesansee told TakePart, pointing to therapists who are well versed in the concepts of generational trauma and familiar with tribal family dynamics. At the same time, Lesanee said it’s important to focus on the tools tribal communities already possess, such as endurance. “We believe—as Native people—we are strong and resilient, and we emphasize that in prevention efforts,” she said.

Jennifer Nanez, a senior program therapist at the University of New Mexico’s Native American Behavioral Health Program, said overt racism continues to play an important role in kids’ lives. “A lot of times the mainstream perspective is that Natives can’t seem to get out of this rut—and that it’s just a characteristic of an American Indian when it’s not,” Nanez said, before echoing the first lady’s sentiments. “[This] is the result of hundreds of years of oppression, and our kids are dealing with it.”

As proof, Nanez pointed to an instance from January when a group of Native American children attending a minor-league hockey game in South Dakota were accosted by a group of white men in a skybox above their seats. The men allegedly dumped beer and yelled racial slurs at the kids, and the story eventually made headlines. “They were getting drunk, and around the third quarter they were talking crap to our kids and throwing beer down on some of them, including our staff and students…telling our students to go back to the rez,” one chaperone wrote on Facebook.

New Mexico is one of a handful of states that have tried to address the problem through legislation. In 2011, the state legislature passed a bill that, in part, created the Native American Suicide Prevention Clearinghouse, which does outreach and consultation for various tribal communities.

Even Native Americans who don’t live in tribal communities feel the impact of the problem. Christian Redbird, 22, was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and has struggled with mental illness while attending community college. Members of her family suffered from undiagnosed mental illness. No one in her family had ever gone to therapy, and instead self-medicated with alcohol, she said. Redbird, the first person in her family to go to college, realized she didn’t have the familial and social networks to help her thrive.

“I work as a server in a restaurant and make more money than anyone in my family does,” she said. “It’s hard for me to know what steps to take when I don’t know what they are.”

August is National Immunization Awareness Month

By Brandi N. Montreuil, Tulalip News

TULALIP -August marks a national health campaign to raise awareness on the importance of immunizations. All throughout this month health professionals along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases are reaching out to communities to educate and promote vaccines.

According to CDC the use of vaccinations could mean the difference between life and death. Some diseases have become rare or have been eradicated through vaccination use, such as smallpox. However the choice to vaccinate is still optional due to no vaccination law enacted by the federal government, other than the requirement in all 50 states that children receive certain vaccinations before entering public schools. Children are required by most states to receive diphtheria, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and tetanus vaccines before entering public school, however, medical exemptions can be given if the child has had an adverse reaction to a prior vaccine or is allergic to a vaccine component

During the August awareness campaign the CDC is seeking to decrease the number of people opting out of vaccination by reaching out to communities through education outreach.

“Vaccines have reduced many diseases to very low levels in the United States. For example, we no longer see polio, a virus that causes paralysis, in our country. Not only do vaccines help the patient, they also protect people who come in contact with the patient. Infants and the elderly have decreased immune systems. Being vaccinated helps protect these populations,” said Dr. Jason McKerry with the Tulalip Karen I. Fryberg Health Clinic on the Tulalip Indian Reservation.

This year, Washington State was among 17 other states that experienced a high percentage of measles cases, a first in 20 years. As of July 30, 585 confirmed cases of measles have been reported throughout the nation, 27 of them in Washington. Similarly, cases involving pertussis, or whooping cough, have been on the rise. As of July 26, Washington State Department of Health reported 219 cases of whooping cough, 6 of those reported in Snohomish County, while Grant, King and Pierce Counties each reported 30 or more.

Through the use of vaccinations the risk of infection is reduced. Vaccinations, explains the CDC website, work “with the body’s natural defenses to help it safely develop immunity to disease.” This means vaccinations aid the development of immunity through imitating infection so when the body does encounter the disease, the body will recognize it and fight the infection with antibodies it has created.

“Serious infections like pneumonia, bacteremia, a bacteria infection that gets in the blood and spreads to the whole body, and meningitis, an infection of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, can occur with lack of vaccinations. Most of these diseases can be treated with medicine, if caught early enough, but serious negative outcomes can occur if the infection spreads rapidly. These include brain damage, hearing loss, chronic lung disease and even death. It is best to be safe and vaccinate early, before you have a chance to contract a life-threatening disease,” said Dr. McKerry about the risks associated with not vaccinating.

Vaccinations can be administered at private doctor offices, public community health clinics and community locations, such as schools and pharmacies for a reduced price, however most insurance plans do provide coverage cost for vaccinations.

“I always encourage a patient to obtain vaccines from a primary care provider who knows them best and can offer the most current advice on vaccines,” Dr. McKerry said, who went onto to explain that children should be vaccinated before the age of two. “Your child should be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B, rotavirus, a virus that causes severe vomiting and diarrhea. Diptheria, tetanus and whooping cough, haemophilus influenza B, a virus that causes pneumonia and ear infections, among other infections, pneumococcus, a bacteria that causes pneumonia and ear infections, among other infections, and polio, measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), varicella (chicken pox) and a yearly flu vaccine.”

For more information about immunizations or immunization schedules, please visit the website Or please contact the Tulalip Karen I. Fryberg Health Clinic at 360-716-4511.


Brandi N. Montreuil: 360-913-5402;