Heritage has the ability to heal

Substance abuse and suicide have been a problem in many American Indian and Alaska Native communities for decades.

12/21/20221 min read

The suicide incidence among American Indians ages 18 to 24 is approximately double the national rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, considerably more American Indians and Alaska Natives needed treatment for alcohol or illicit drug use in the previous year than those from other ethnic groups (National Survey on Drug Use and Health, November 2012).

Many psychologists have sought to address these issues in the past by implementing Western evidence-based treatments that ignored indigenous values such as spirituality, elder wisdom, and family bonds. Indigenous peoples were also rarely approached to contribute to the development of solutions. Researchers also concentrated on persons who used substances rather than the strengths of those who remained sober. With time, it became evident that these Western approaches were ineffective.

In recent decades, psychologists have begun to collaborate closely with indigenous populations in order to include American Indian traditions into therapies. "We found that the treatment techniques available at the time were very restricted in their application to the challenges of life in Native America," says Spero M. Manson, PhD, director of the Colorado School of Public Health's Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health. "Our understanding of the necessity of culturally responsive care has developed, and evidence to that effect has accumulated," says Pembina Chippewa Manson.

These lessons from the past inspire today's work in indigenous communities, and cultural legacy is proving to be a tremendous force in tackling these public health concerns. "Many of the problems that native communities experience are driven by a lack of connection to their heritage," says Cherokee and Choctaw psychology professor Art Blume, PhD, of Washington State University Vancouver. "We've made progress in the last few years because we've combined the best indigenous traditional healing methods with empirically backed interventions, and we've increased community trust by working with them."

Four of these innovative programs, which are showing promise in preventing suicide and addiction in indigenous communities, are examined in this article.