|For Immediate Release
June 29, 2003
Minneapolis, MN—The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), the nation’s largest organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illnesses, convened a symposium on American Indian & Alaska Native Mental Health Care at its annual convention—as part of efforts to build new partnerships and alliances to confront the mental health crisis in communities throughout the United States.
Reporting on a visit to the Navajo Nation earlier this year, NAMI National Board President Jim McNulty said: "We are all paying a price for the break-up of American families—and that includes Indian families. If there is any one value we share, it is the importance of families."
"I also was impressed by the sense of hope, optimism, courage and mission in Indian country," he said. "That is something we also share."
Symposium speakers emphasized the "essential" need to integrate American Indian medical and cultural traditions with that of Western medicine and a mental healthcare system that is woefully underfunded.
By treaty the United States is supposed to provide the Navajo people with health care "so long as the rivers should run and the sun shall shine," said Wanda MacDonald, Former First Lady of the Navajo Nation. However, the federal government "attempts to deal with us routinely and at minimal cost"—despite the profound depth of problems relative to other communities.
"Our mental health is assaulted every day…NAMI must be a catalyst for change," MacDonald said. "Personally, I would like NAMI to be the tsunami of the Navajo people."
The United States has over 560 federally recognized tribes, representing different languages, cultures and lifestyles. Four million American Indians and Native Alaskans represents approximately one percent of the United States population—but no large-scale epidemiological studies of them have yet been published.
Use of mental health services is limited by lack of research. The majority of American Indians rely on tribal healing.
Just under 50% of American Indians have job-based health insurance, compared to 72% of whites. Over 25% of American Indians live in poverty, compared to eight percent of whites.
American Indians have a high prevalence of substance abuse, alcohol dependence and the need for illicit drug abuse treatment. One small study with a 20-year follow-up found the lifetime prevalence of mental disorders to be 70%.
The suicide rate for American Indians is 1.5 times the national rate. Males ages 15 to 24 account for two-thirds of all American Indian suicides.
Speakers also raised concern over the lack of scholarships available for American Indians hoping to become mental health professionals, as well as the lack of mental training and understanding among judges in the criminal justice system.
In conjunction with the symposium, NAMI released an American Indian & Native Alaskan Resource Manual to support allied organizing and advocacy at local, state and national levels. The Manual is available in print or CD ROM form for $22.50 from the NAMI Website store or downloaded for free from the Website’s Multicultural & International Outreach (MIO) Center section. See www.nami.org.
Cynthia Mala of North Dakota, a specialist in American Indian health studies, noted that Power of the World in Indian culture works in circles—and that everything is connected. "Coming to terms with mental health is a very personal journey," she said, involving individuals, families and communities. "Sometimes a person needs help" in making the journey.
As The Nation’s Voice on Mental Illness, NAMI leads a national grassroots effort to transform America’s mental health care system, combat stigma, support research, and attain adequate health insurance, housing, rehabilitation, jobs and family support for millions of Americans living with mental illnesses. NAMI’s one thousand affiliates are dedicated to public education, advocacy and support and receive generous donations from tens of thousands of individuals as well as grants from government, foundations and corporations. NAMI’s greatest asset, however, is its volunteers—who donate an estimated $135 million worth of their time each year.