In the Public Interest

November is National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, which honors the many contributions of American Indians and Alaska Natives. During this month, we remember the legacy of the first Americans, celebrate their vibrant culture and heritage, and recognize their numerous accomplishments. We also acknowledge their resilience in the face of adversity and unique challenges.

As of 2005, an estimated 4.5 million people (1.5 percent of the U.S. population) classified themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native alone or in combination with other races or ethnic groups. There are 561 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. American Indians maintain 32 tribally controlled colleges, offering associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees, with a large percentage of students going on to pursue advanced degrees.

American Indians and Alaska Natives have made important contributions to the United States in various arenas, including engineering, medicine, defense and business.

Unfortunately, negative stereotypes often portrayed by sports team mascots and other mass media inventions perpetuate negative and often destructive beliefs and opinions. American Indians and Alaska Natives face daunting challenges in areas many Americans take for granted. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Indian Health Service (IHS), this group of Americans has poorer health, lower life expectancy and disproportionate disease when compared with other groups, perhaps because of significant poverty, discrimination in health-care delivery and cultural differences.

Of particular importance are the considerable disparities that exist in the psychological well-being of American Indians and Alaska Natives. As many as 30 percent of these adults suffer from depression. Suicide rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives age 15 to 34 are almost two times higher than the national average. According to the past president of the Society of Indian Psychologists, John J. Peregoy, PhD, cluster suicides—a succession of multiple deaths in a single location within one year—have become of increasing concern. Research shows that the mental and behavioral health needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives are largely unmet. IHS acknowledges that any type of intervention or prevention strategy must incorporate and build upon traditional cultural practices. Time-honored healing practices and spiritual beliefs complement Western-based approaches and enhance their overall health and well-being.

As with any ethnic or racial minority population, more American Indian and Alaska Native psychologists are needed to serve in areas where these populations live. Currently, there are approximately 500 American Indian and Alaska Native psychologists. In 2006, American Indians and Alaska Natives represented only 0.5 percent of students earning psychology doctorates, down from 0.9 percent in 2003.

The Society of Indian Psychologists is working to reverse that trend. The organization informally mentors psychology students, offers scholarships and provides academic and culture-specific feedback. The society also lobbied for the Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments, has provided crisis intervention to communities, developed a cadre of speakers on mental health care issues and partnered with APA's Public Interest Government Relations Office to advocate for more federal funding for the Indians into Psychology clinical training program.

In acknowledging National American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month, we must recognize the large role psychology has to play in lessening the disproportionate mental health burdens faced by American Indian and Alaska Native people. We must celebrate and support the invaluable contributions that psychologists have made to improve conditions in these communities and the lives and futures of individuals. More than ever, American Indian and Alaska Native psychologists and the work they do must be acknowledged for the tremendous contributions they make to our field and to APA.