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American Indians, Mental Health, and the Influence of History


November is American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions and histories of Native Americans and to raise awareness about the challenges they face, including mental health.

High suicide rates among Native Americans, particularly among youth and young adults, are well documented. Although suicide rates vary widely by tribes, the suicide rate among American Indians ages 10 to 20 is more than twice the U.S. average and higher than all other racial ethnic groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1.

For American Indians, the high rates of suicide and suicidal behavior has been attributed partly to the social and cultural turmoil created by a historical treatment of Native Americans. The trauma resulting from a history of race-based policy, discrimination and oppression has significant and longstanding impact. These practices have devastating impacts on the language, culture and people and have resulted in disparities in social and demographic factors (poverty, income, and housing) and health and mental health (diabetes, cancer, suicide, depression, and substance abuse).

In addition to the risk factors for suicide for populations overall, such as prior suicide attempts, alcohol and other substance use disorders, mood and anxiety disorders and access to means, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center has identified risk factors specific to American Indians including historical trauma, alienation, acculturation, discrimination, community violence, lack of access to care, and exposure to suicide 2.

APA Resources

If we are to address the high rates of suicide within this population, American Indian communities and individuals have to have what they need to be healthy. That means physical, social and economic environments that support physical and mental well-being and access to medical and mental health services when needed3. Additionally, we must be mindful that the remnants of past discrimination and oppressive practices continue to drive behaviors and exist in policies, systems and institutions.

The focus must be on practices that build and support environments that strengthen American Indian families. Culture, spirituality, languages and practices of American Indian people are factors that have sustained these communities throughout history. These factors can be built upon to address significant disparities in health and mental health in these communities.

About the Author

By Melanie Peterson-Hickey, Ph.D., an Ojibwe from the Lac du Flambeau Indian reservation in Northern Wisconsin. She is a senior research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Health.


Patients and Families


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