Why is there high rates of mental illness within the indigenous communities and what traditional and non-traditional ways can we combat it?

Dear Malia,

What we know is that there is a strong connection between health disparities, including mental health issues, and the impact of colonization, primarily the impact of historical trauma on Tribal communities. Currently, Native American communities are looking to Traditional Indigenous Knowledge (TIK) and culture to address these conditions. It becomes complicated because there are so many Traditional Indigenous ways and practices, not one way.

TIK has been defined by the International Council of Science as “a cumulative body of knowledge, know-how, practices and representations maintained and developed by peoples with extended histories of interaction with the natural environment”. There are several parts to TIK, including Original Instructions, Relational Restoration and Narrative Transformation, which help Native American people to address these conditions from a traditional Indigenous way.

  • Original instructions are instructions about one’s culture that are passed down from generation to generation. They are instructions based in cultural or familial values and beliefs. They celebrate our interdependence and interconnection as Tribal people along with the diversity of life and culture.
  • Relational restoration involves repairing the relational way of being and our responsibility to each other, to past and future generations. It is a process of recreating, or reestablishing, original instructions through a current lens of experience based in place, time and space, and which is grounded in relationship with family, community, tribe, land, spirit. The restructuring occurs in an attempt to recreate instructions in a contemporary context that are meaningful to the here and now.
  • The narrative transformation attempts to recreate meaning and create a new narrative through an individual experience by bringing one’s own communication style, inflection and narrative to facilitate transformation. For example, instead of referring to “suicide” and “substance abuse” which focuses on pathology, we transform the narrative to “living” and “relation to medicine”. We historically have done this through our oral histories and storytelling, observation, art, the use of silence, music, dance, and movement, while also incorporating new technology along the way.

Because of this movement to better understand traditional ways of knowing, Tribal communities have developed some tools. These can include utilizing sweat lodge, talking circles, Healing of the Canoe, and many other traditional ways of being in the world. I would suggest reaching out to your Tribal community to see what they are doing in your area to address mental health.

Best of luck.

Auntie Manda

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