In Brief

Mental health problems have run rampant among Native American populations for years, but recent efforts to reverse the situation are making noticeable gains, said Mary Lou Stanton, acting director of headquarter operations of the Indian Health Service (IHS), at APA's 2004 Annual Convention.

Representing IHS Director Charles W. Grim, DDS, Stanton was the first IHS staff member to speak at an APA convention. A division of the Department of Health and Human Services, IHS provides comprehensive health care--including mental health services and substance abuse treatment--through 12 area offices and 155 service units to about 1.6 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in 566 federally recognized tribes. In fact, a self-determination law allows tribes to manage their own mental health programs; currently, tribes manage 80 percent of these programs.

It's a population that faces extensive mental health problems, said Stanton. The statistics are telling:

  • Alcoholism death rates are more than seven times the national average.

  • Thirty-two percent of people live below the poverty rate.

  • Unemployment is 2.5 times the national average.

  • Suicide is nearly twice and homicide more than twice the national average.

"Statistics show there's a long history of subjugation, poor economics and lack of opportunities among our native populations," said Stanton, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux tribe, located in the eastern Dakotas. As a result, "The need for mental health is very great," she noted.

Yet recent efforts to help are bearing fruit, Stanton said. Tribes have consistently supported increasing mental health funds through the congressional appropriation process, she added. One group that offers help is the Friends of Indian Health, a coalition of 40 health organizations, including APA, that works to supply adequate health care for Native Americans. What's more, Congress is proposing to increase mental health funding by 7 to 8 percent in IHS's proposed 2005 budget, though that number is still pending final congressional approval.

Stanton noted some evidence of these efforts: Since 1973, suicide rates have fallen 10 percent, homicides 44 percent and accidental deaths 57 percent among American Indians and Native Alaskans.

"I think health-care professionals play a significant role in addressing the issues that we have," Stanton said. "I've worked very closely with Native Americans, sometimes seeing the hopelessness in the conditions in which they live. So anything mental health professionals can do is helpful."

--M. GREER

Further Reading

For more information on IHS and Native American mental health, visit http://info.ihs.gov.