Seminole Tribe member and Miss Indian World Cheyenne Kippenberger spoke alongside other United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc. (UNITY) leaders on July 16 in a Congressional hearing entitled “Native Youth Perspectives on Mental Health and Healing.”
Led by Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego, chair of the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, the virtual hearing was an opportunity for Native youth to share their experiences with mental health and what can be done to improve mental health in indigenous communities across the nation.
Kippenberger was joined by three other youth leaders from different tribes: Marco Ovando, of the Shoshone Paiute Tribe; Laticia Gonzales, of the Bishop Paiute; and Robert “Scottie” Miller, of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.
Currently, American Indians and Alaska Natives have disproportionately higher rates of depression, substance abuse, PTSD, intergenerational trauma and suicide. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death among Natives. Kippenberger has put mental health at the forefront of her reign as Miss Indian World, which has been extended an additional year due to this year’s MIW pageant being cancelled because of the pandemic.
During her statements in the hearing, Kippenberger called for increased access to mental health services and counseling on the reservations, citing her own experience with the Center for Behavioral Health on the Hollywood Reservation.
“I am aware of the privilege it is to have access to a therapist on my own reservation and to have resources that prescribed me the antidepressants that I needed,” Kippenberger said, “but mental health care should not be a privilege. This type of access to support facilities should be available all over Indian Country.”
Kippenberger called for mental health access for Natives living on and off reservations and within educational settings beginning at preschool and continuing through college. The services she suggested would provide Native youth with tools and coping mechanisms they need.
Kippenberger stated the importance of having federally-funded programs to protect mental health, but that also provide “culturally competent care with treatment paths not limited to just therapy or medications.” She stated that it’s important that caregivers, at the very least, must understand the trauma that the Native population has withstood after years of genocide, broken treaties and persecution. If possible, she would like to see mental health workers that are part of Native communities and who can truly understand the struggles of Native youth.
Finally, Kippenberger called for the U.S. government to fund research regarding mental health among Native populations.
“How do we know what needs to be done or provided without understanding what is occurring in the lives of our Native people?” she asked. “We need accurate research and data to prove what we know has been occurring for decades in our community.”
Kippenberger’s points were in line with the statements the other leaders gave. Her emphasis on the need to understand and embrace culture was in sync with Ovando’s primary message regarding the rediscovery and preservation of Native culture and spirituality.
“My mental health is tied to my spirituality and as for many back home, one cannot exist without the other,” Ovando said.
Miller, who agreed that there is an urgent need for increased access to mental health care for reservations, stated that there is also a need to destigmatize mental health services, especially among tribes that he describes as less outwardly emotional.
“Part of [solving this issue] would just be education and advocating that you don’t need to have a problem to go to a counselor. And that it’s normal,” Miller said.
All of the panelists acknowledged the added toll that COVID-19 is taking on reservations and Native communities. Native communities are considered a vulnerable population to the disease and some communities have struggled to keep members safe physically and mentally.
Each panelist agreed that either limited access to basic necessities or the cancellation of important community events have impacted the mental health of the communities as a whole. However, they agreed that Natives are able to “rally” through all of their strifes. Ovando cited a pen pal system between youth and elders, the two groups he says are struggling most, among the Shoshone and Kippenberger, mentioned weekly Zoom calls among members who are willing to do “whatever it takes” to support one another.