New efforts are underway to help reduce mental health stigma, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation amongst Alaska Native and American Indian service members, veterans, and their families.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is partnering with sovereign tribal governments, state governments, and other federal agencies to support the healing of a population it says is underserved and needs more services. SAMHSA created the Office of Tribal Affairs and Policy in 2014 to improve the overall access to behavioral health and the effective delivery of services to tribal communities. SAMHSA recently hosted a webinar, “Working Together with Native Communities to Support the Healing of our Service Members, Veterans, and their Families,” to highlight those efforts.
According to SAMHSA, Alaska Natives and American Indians have higher rates of substance abuse (with the exception of alcohol) and mental health issues than the general population. Alaska Natives and American Indians have also served at a higher rate in the Post-9/11 service period than veterans of other races. Alaskan Native and American Indian veterans also have lower personal income than other races, and are more likely to not have medical insurance.
Seprieono Locario, Tribal Action Plan and Wellness Coordinator of SAMHSA’s Tribal Training and Technical Assistance Center, said during the webinar that more can be done to help provide mental health resources to Alaska Native and American Indian service members, veterans, and their families. There is a need for more collaboration, he said, including strengthening relationships between tribes and states, commitments from tribes to their veterans, collaboration between tribes, and creating new laws and policies to support innovative and collaborative efforts. Peer-to-peer support amongst veterans is also greatly needed.
Locario advocated for creating opportunities to strengthen relationships between sovereign tribal governments and state governments to increase mental health services for Alaska Native and American Indian service members, veterans, and their families, many of whom live in rural areas with less immediate access to the services they need. There is a need to formalize comprehensive services for veterans in those rural areas, and he recommends tribal and state government-to-government consultation in order to change policies. States can also promote veteran wellness by increasing cultural resources and practices and integrating them into their behavioral health systems.
Locario also noted that tribes making commitments to their veterans can also help strengthen the safety net for those that may be experiencing a mental illness. Things such as publically acknowledging military service at tribal events and gatherings, having returning home ceremonies, and tribal peer-to-peer veteran services can help overall community wellness.
Lieutenant Colonel John Frederikson, retired from the U.S. Airforce and now a professor at the University of Montana, presented during the webinar about the unique challenges veterans face in Montana and how to effectively respond in rural areas of the state. Mutually respectful partnerships between tribal and state organizations are crucial to success, he said.
In the past there have been instances where government or university researchers have exploited tribes. That is still a concern today of well-intentioned but culturally uninformed researchers, he said. Being that tribes exist as sovereign nations, it is their responsibility to determine the type of research that serves their tribal members, and any research outcomes or products should be the property of the tribes.
Montana, which has the second largest veteran population in the country, has some unique issues due to the number of tribes in rural areas. There is a lack of readily accessible psychological and other mental health support services in the rural parts of the state as well as a lack of funding for services. However, Montana does have a primary Veterans Affairs hospital at Ft. Harrison in Helena, as well as four Regional Vet Centers, and 12 VA clinics, and most veterans are within 2 hours of one of the locations.
Suicide remains a high risk in tribal communities in Montana, Frederikson said, and is often associated with poverty. On one reservation over a 5-year period, approximately 50 percent of suicide calls involved a veteran or his or her children. Protective factors need to be increased to help address the problem, he said. Those include cultural beliefs that discourage suicide and support resilience, greater connections to the land, positive role models and mentors, and healthy and safe peer activities.
For more information on SAMHSA’s Service Members, Veterans, and their Families Technical Assistance Center email firstname.lastname@example.org .