Guggenheim winner to study poverty, mental health and Native American culture

Apr 24, 2014

Times are incredibly tough for Native American children. Poverty, unemployment and abuse are just some of the issues plaguing the nation's tribes, according to a recent article in the Washington Post. Here's an excerpt:

“The circumstances are absolutely dire for Indian children,” said Theresa M. Pouley, the chief judge of the Tulalip Tribal Court in Washington state and a member of the Indian Law and Order Commission.

Pouley fluently recites statistics in a weary refrain: “One-quarter of Indian children live in poverty, versus 13 percent in the United States. They graduate high school at a rate 17 percent lower than the national average. Their substance-abuse rates are higher. They’re twice as likely as any other race to die before the age of 24. They have a 2.3 percent higher rate of exposure to trauma. They have two times the rate of abuse and neglect. Their experience with post-traumatic stress disorder rivals the rates of returning veterans from Afghanistan.”

And it doesn't end there. The rate of suicides for Native Americans is persistently higher than that of any other race. So what to do about these abysmal statistics? Well, the Washington Post points to a newly created U.S. Justice Department task force that's "part of an effort to reduce the number of Native American youth in the criminal justice system." The task force has hearings in North Dakota, Arizona, Florida and Alaska.

Closer to home we've got a University of Michigan psychology professor who's currently studying how to best provide mental health services to Native populations. Joseph P. Gone is an associate professor of psychology and American Culture and he was recently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study the intersection of culture and mental health in American Indian communities. I caught up with Gone by phone (he was in Montana visiting friends at a reservation) to hear more about his research. 

U of M psychologist Joseph Gone is working on a book that looks at the intersection of mental health and Native American culture.
U of M psychologist Joseph Gone is working on a book that looks at the intersection of mental health and Native American culture.
Credit Photo courtesy of Joseph Gone

"Impoverished reservation settings don’t lend themselves to the best mental well-being," explains Gone. Take "talk therapy," for example. Gone says Native Americans have different cultural norms when it comes to who talks with whom and about what. So showing up and talking to a complete stranger (e.g., a psychologist) about intimate aspects of their lives just isn't something Gone says many Native Americans are comfortable with. So figuring out how to integrate "indigenous healing practices into clinical mental health settings" is one of Gone's goals. It's also the topic of his forthcoming book, Rethinking American Indian Mental Health, which he hopes to complete during his fellowship year.