California Allocates $1 Million to Improve Mental Health of Native American Youth

Pre-school age children learn Yurok words at the Klamath Family Head Start program. “We’re seeing that youth who participate in our cultural activities, it helps them much more in dealing with their mental health problems,” said Carrie Johnson, a clinical psychologist at the Los Angeles social service organization United American Indian Involvement. Photo credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

Growing up, most of the kids Shannon Albers knew struggled with their mental health.

A member of the Yurok Tribe, Albers, 19, has lived on the Hoopa Valley reservation in Humboldt County for his entire life. And for as long as he can remember, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and substance abuse haunted his peers.

“It’s so normal that all the kids have the same problem,” he said. “People talk to their friends at school like, ‘I’ve got a feeling like I don’t really want to be on this earth.’ ‘You do? You think that way too, because there are about 10 other kids who just told me the same thing.’ It’s not even considered mental health here because it’s just the norm.”

Albers, who was put into foster care at the age of 5, said he also struggled with depression. But after he entered high school, he joined a youth group and started traveling across the state advocating for the needs of Native American youth. He met teenagers from different backgrounds, and only then started to understand that what he was going through wasn’t—and shouldn’t—be accepted as normal.

“That’s when I started to say, ‘Is this really a lot? Is this ok?’” he said. “And then I realized no, what I’m going through, my friends, the people back home—it’s not ok.”

While mental health resources for Native American youth are sparse throughout California, the state has taken a modest step to support Albers and his peers by earmarking more than $1 million for Native American youth as part of the first-ever statewide Youth Reinvestment Fund. The fund, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into the 2018-19 budget, aims to keep vulnerable youth populations out of the criminal justice system by instead supporting more community and health interventions.

“We had hoped for $10 million, and we got $1 million,” said Virginia Hedrick, also a member of the Yurok Tribe and director of policy and planning for the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health. “But it’s a huge step for the state to acknowledge that there’s a role for supporting tribal communities in this.”

While there isn’t much data on the mental health of Native American youth in California—in part because the community is small—experts say it’s a pressing problem.

“From what we see, there are pretty high rates,” Carrie Johnson, a clinical psychologist at the Los Angeles social service organization United American Indian Involvement, said of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder among Native American youth.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, Native Americans across the country experience serious psychological distress 1.5 times more often than the general population, and post-traumatic stress disorder more than twice as often. Native American youth also use drugs and alcohol at younger ages and higher rates than other groups.

One major reason, said Hedrick, is historical trauma, the cumulative psychological wounding of a group that’s passed down from generation to generation. Young people today, she said, still live with the impact of things like government-sponsored boarding schools, which separated children from their parents, language and culture. Without access to culture, youth also lost traditional wellness practices and cultural rituals—such as dance and drumming—that can ward off mental health problems.

In addition, Native American youth face disparities in modern medical care, said Daniel Dickerson, a psychiatrist at UCLA’s Integrated Substance Abuse Programs.

For those in urban settings, this can be traced to the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which moved Native Americans away from reservations and into cities with the promise of more jobs and opportunities, he said. But it didn’t work out this way, and many of these relocated families ended up unemployed or homeless, said Dickerson.

“That set the stage for health disparities and the challenges and struggles the population in Los Angeles has experienced since then,” said Dickerson, who also works at the American Indian Counseling Center for the LA County Department of Mental Health.

One important solution, said Johnson, is to revitalize traditional practices, such as dance and drumming, and to integrate them into mental health treatment. For the past 12 years, her group, United American Indian Involvement, has run a drum and regalia program that she says has successfully reduced anxiety and depression in youth and their families.

“We’re seeing that youth who participate in our cultural activities, it helps them much more in dealing with their mental health problems,” she said.

Dickerson agreed. He is currently researching drumming as a substance use intervention, and has preliminarily found positive results—it’s effective to mental and physical health, and the community wants these kinds of programs available to them. In a separate research project, he has found that connection to culture also boosts self-esteem, which then makes youth more resilient in the face of discrimination. Meanwhile, those young people who can’t cope with discrimination are at higher risk of health problems.

Hedrick also stressed that it’s imperative for mainstream, behavioral health services to develop more culturally competent care when working with Native Americans, in particular, by relying on providers from within the community.

“You can’t just have people come from the outside and say, ‘You need an anti-depressant and move away from [the reservation],’” she said. “We need someone who understands the cultural, local values, and can speak in context for Yurok people.”

Meanwhile, Albers hopes the money from the Youth Reinvestment Fund is used to create mentoring programs and youth centers so that kids always have a safe place to go.

But he’d also like to see more from the state, he said.

“I’m glad they started claiming responsibility but it’s just a start,” said Albers. “Whether the state of California likes it or not, they are responsible for any kid in the state. They are responsible for what happens to us—if we die young, if we get an addiction or don’t have a place to stay. That falls on them, and they should be doing everything they can to help.”

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