Professor highlights Native American mental health issues

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Photo Credit: Angel Ulloa | Daily Texan Staff

The loss of cultural identity in Native American communities has greatly contributed to mental health issues, such as substance abuse and suicide, said Joseph Gone, psychology and American cultures professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. 

During a Wednesday lecture hosted by the UT Humanities Institute, Gone, a citizen of the Gros Ventre tribe nation of Montana, said the colonial destruction of both Native American people and their culture inflicted historical trauma.

Poor socio-economic conditions and the lack of cultural identity are “shared community vulnerabilities” in Native American communities, resulting in more mental health issues, Gone said. 

“It’s not about individuals, it’s about all of us in this together,” Gone said. “All of us are (disadvantaged) by the system.”

Gone said many Native Americans found clinical interventions and conventional therapy methods to be unhelpful, because they gave an atmosphere of “therapy culture” that was “off-putting.” Clinical interventions can also be too coercive, Gone said. He pointed to one program that threatened to take away patients’ children or call law enforcement if they resisted.

“Most of the people who came into the program were often under duress,” Gone said. “People come, but they don’t stay.”

Ky Goodman, social work graduate student, said the issue of Native American mental health problems is not discussed as often as it should.

“It’s not talked about enough,” Goodman said. “Whenever talking about mental health issues, there is stigma in blaming the victim.”

Gone said he found a possible solution in group therapy that emphasized cultural heritage and rituals during a visit to the Crystal Creek Lodge Treatment Center, a Native-American-managed clinic in Montana.

Tepee building, sweat lodges and story telling were among the activities the counselors and patients engaged in, which reconstructed a cultural identity, Gone said. 

Although Gone’s research needs more empirical data, Dell Medical School Associate Dean David Ring said he found it promising that therapy can feel personalized.

“There is a stigma against psychological treatment” Ring said. “People don’t necessarily find it appealing and can find it artificial.”

Gone said the results after the treatment were positive because they did not mirror conventional therapy.

“In terms of enduring impressions, this was very memorable and inspiring,” Gone said, “It would be difficult to overestimate the sacred and socio-political significance of this. It was unrecognizable as psycho-social treatment.”