Native American communities experience a much higher rate of mental health issues, such as substance abuse and suicide, than any other racial or ethnic group in the country ― and the media tend to fixate on these grim figures.
Data shows that tribal communities experience psychological distress 1.5 times more often than the general population, and Native Americans use and abuse alcohol and drugs at younger ages and at higher rates than any other ethnic group. Plus, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 10- to 34-year-olds in tribal communities.
But Doreen Bird, Ph.D., an expert on mental health issues in tribal communities, says numbers like these tell only part of the story.
Bird, who hails from the Kewa Pueblo of New Mexico, has devoted her career to researching mental and behavioral health among Native American communities. She notes that suicide rates can vary widely from tribe to tribe, and cautions against treating all Native peoples as a monolith.
“You can get a very different picture among different tribal nations,” Bird told HuffPost.
Because of the stigma surrounding suicide, the reported numbers can also sometimes be off. In tribal communities, there’s a reluctance to speak about those who have died by suicide, as well as mistrust of outside researchers who examine issues related to suicide but aren’t from within the tribal communities, she added. It can also be taboo to talk about those who have died, Bird explained.
HuffPost spoke with Bird to learn more about her work, and what she wishes others knew about mental health within Native American communities.
HuffPost: What’s the biggest misconception about suicide in tribal communities?
Bird: A lot of times, the media and journal articles highlight high rates of suicide. But even in my own state of New Mexico, there were different varying rates. One study found that the more acculturated tribes had higher suicide rates than the more traditional, less acculturated tribes. But the tribe that I come from [Kewa Pueblo] had zero suicides. Some tribal nations have very low suicides, while others have very high suicide rates. So when you really look into tribal-specific numbers, you can get a very different picture amongst different tribal nations.
HuffPost: What’s important for researchers to keep in mind when it comes to tribal suicide prevention?
Bird: There are many cultural considerations that may be unique to each tribe. Some tribal communities consider it taboo to talk about death while others are OK to talk about death and the deceased. It’s also important to listen to the elders and youth because they have lived experience in their communities. As outsiders trying to make an impact, it behooves us to look at strengths and resilience that lie within each community.
Read more on HuffingtonPost.com.