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Challenges Regarding Mental Illness and American Indian and Native Alaskan Populations

The predicament of American Indians has been largely ignored by Americans. Encompassing about 4.1 million individuals, or 1.5 percent of the national population, Native peoples as an ethnic group are smaller than any other in the USA. Due to the relative size of this population compared to Caucasians, African Americans, Hispanic/Latinos and Asian Americans, the unique racial experiences of Native Americans and Alaskans are often left out of national discourse. Many problems exist within this population, contributing to disparities in mental health problems as well as access to treatment for these groups.

Currently, about one-third of Native Americans are residing on reservations, with the other two-thirds living in suburban, urban or rural non-reservation areas. Native Americans and Native Alaskans are a diverse population, with 564 federally recognized tribes, as well as 100 tribes recognized on a state level, speaking more than 200 different languages and encompassing many different cultures and traditions. Many professionals believe that having a rich cultural identity and sense of community within Native American/Alaskan population is beneficial for the mental health of these populations, however many factors, such as lack of access to health care, poverty, substance/alcohol abuse, and disparate violence continue to harm the mental health of many Native American/Alaskans.


Challenges Regarding Mental Illness Studies

While extensive studies have not been done to assess the inequity of mental illness among Native American/Alaskan populations, some information is available. At a glance, American Indian and Native Alaskans:

  • Experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at twice the rate of the general population
  • Have depression rates ranging from 10 to 30 percent of the population, although rates of depression for older Native Americans and Alaskans were considerably lower, possibly due to a cultural emphasis on care and appreciation for elders.
  • Have suicide rates about 1.5 times higher than the general population, with suicide as the second leading cause of death among 10-34 year-olds. Suicide is also much less prevalent among the elderly, with a suicide rate of one-third the general population among Native Americans and Alaskans 75 years and older.

In addition, Native Americans and Alaskans have disproportionate alcohol/drug issues, which can stem from mental illness or coincide with these issues. Native Americans and Alaskans, as an ethnic group, experience higher rates of both alcohol and drug dependency than all other ethnic groups in the United States. Native Americans/Alaskans also typically begin using drugs and alcohol at younger ages than other ethnic groups. Native Americans/Alaskans also experience violence at a rate twice than African Americans and two and a half times higher than white Americans.

Injustices committed against Native Americans/Alaskans for centuries in the United States provide a vital background to these issues, as these groups experience high levels of poverty and experience inadequate health care on reservations where they .

American Indians and Alaskans are far more likely than the general population of the US to die from diseases like tuberculosis, diabetes, hepatitis, unintentional injuries, and die from alcohol-related illness at rates six times higher than most Americans. The Native American/Alaskan life expectancy is also six years younger than the average American life expectancy. Native Americans/Alaskans are twice as likely as the average American to live in poverty, and are uninsured at rates three times higher than white Americans.


Healthcare for Native Americans

Since 1787, the United States government has promised to provide healthcare for Native Americans on reservations, but this promise has fallen through in many ways. According to a 2005 study, the federal government spends about one-third more per capita on healthcare in prisons than for those accessing this healthcare.

This leads to wealthier tribes spending more money on healthcare to compensate, but those living on reservations in more rural areas and with less funding find themselves with little access to basic care. Many times those who seek care are “rationed” services, and only those who are in emergency situations can receive medical care. According to NBC News, a 5-year-old girl named Ta’Shon Rain Little Light, living on Crow Reservation in Montana, complained to her mother about stomach pains, and was brought to an Indian Health Service Clinic, where she was told she was only depressed. Her condition worsened, and the little girl visited the clinic 10 more times before her lung collapsed and she was rushed to a children’s hospital in Denver and was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died shortly after. Other Native Americans accessing Indian Health Care Clinics claim that it is virtually impossible to see a doctor unless one is dying or losing a limb. Many experts believe that one cause for such little funding for Native American healthcare is the size of the ethnic group.

While this system is usually analyzed by its care for those physically sick or injured, it represents the lack of care for the mentally ill, since mental illness is usually placed at a lower priority than physical well-being. In fact, most Native Americans/Alaskans who seek care for mental health problems usually look towards forms of alternative healing, such as a spiritual healer, as opposed to medical treatments. These forms of treatments can be promising, as Native Americans/Alaskans who have stronger tribal spirituality tend to have lower suicide rates.

Probable successes from treating mental illness with traditional/spiritual healing and strong community ties must also be considered in the lack of access to medical treatment for mental illness. Recent data demonstrates that only one in seven Cherokee children with a mental disorder were able to receive medical treatment, and were more likely than white children to receive care for mental illness in a juvenile center or outpatient facility.

It is clear that the Native American/Alaskan face unique problems relating to the prevalence and treatment of mental illness. While Native populations have unique advantages towards solutions for these mental health issues, proper medical care, health insurance and better living situations remain a burden that disproportionately affects this ethnic group.



"USA QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau." USA QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Jan. 2016.

"Native American Communities and Mental Health." Mental Health America. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Jan. 2016.

Mental Health Disparities : American Indians and Alaska Natives (n.d.): n. pag. APA Fact Sheet. Web.

"Broken Promises: Reservations Lack Basic Care." Msnbc.com. N.p., 14 June 2009. Web. 09 Jan. 2016.

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