The pandemic's Native American mental-health toll: 'Everybody knew somebody who had died'

·Senior Editor
·4-min read
Dr. Carrie Johnson, a psychologist, works with indigenous clients in Los Angeles through the United American Indian Involvement. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Carrie Johnson)
Carrie Johnson, a psychologist, works with indigenous clients in Los Angeles through the United American Indian Involvement. (Photo courtesy of Carrie Johnson)

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month 2021, Yahoo Life is profiling some of the many professionals who are focused on serving some of the country’s most marginalized populations — and on changing the field of mental health while they’re at it. Read all the interviews here.

Carrie Johnson

Psychologist, member of the Wahpeton Dakota Nation, and director of Seven Generations Child and Family Services of United American Indian Involvement, serving Los Angeles County.

What are some issues specific to the American Indian and Alaska Native clients that you serve?

In urban areas particularly, like Los Angeles, our native population is so isolated, even though L.A. County has a large population of urban Native Americans. We're all spread out, and as a result of that, I think we really just disconnect from culture and community. What we've seen in our clients is a lot of mental health problems, substance abuse problems. I've been working with Natives for over 25 years as a psychologist, focusing more on therapy. But once we saw that our rates of substance abuse and mental health problems were not decreasing, they were only increasing, it was like, something's not working here. So, we started integrating more cultural activities — like our drum-and-dance class, bead making — and I just wrote a grant to hire traditional healers. And it’s been absolutely amazing, which I've detailed in a paper for The Behavior Therapist journal.

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What does that say about the field of psychotherapy?

You know, mental health, our evidence-based practices, they just don't work for our community. There needs to be something more… because it really doesn't take into account where Native Americans have come from, and the trauma that they've come from — historical trauma of forced relocations, massacres, children being removed from families, all passed on from generation to generation. We carry a lot of that stuff with us… and there's so much more going on within ourselves and our families. Like for myself, my mom was forcibly taken away and placed in boarding school, and you know, just the trauma that she experienced, we know is passed on to us, and we want to make sure it's not passed on to the next generations. We know what helps our community: it’s a culture, it's a spirituality, it's our connection with each other.

What do outsiders not understand about the mental health needs of Indigenous people?

Who we are and where we came from and how marginalized we continue to be — and how we are still invisible, really. So, we do a lot of honoring who they are and honoring our people and our ancestors, and teaching them… A lot say, "I don't know about my culture." In an area like Los Angeles, a lot of people came here on a relocation program and they lost connection with their tribe.

It’s interesting you say "invisible," because despite "Indigenous" being front and center in "BIPOC," it seems like the conversation doesn’t often go there.

I think that's correct. It really doesn't… I think native people often are just not heard. And so they don't speak up. Yeah. And that just goes on because of our history. And so we do need to teach our youth to speak up and our families to speak up and to have a voice.

What sort of mental health impacts of COVID did you see?

It was just so traumatizing for a lot of our families — a lot of whom had families on reservations, like the Navajo Nation, and they had so many deaths, and we had quite a high rate of deaths here in Los Angeles with our native community. Everybody knew somebody who had died from it. It brings up a lot for our elders… Everybody's saying, "This happened to us before, all the diseases that happened to native people… smallpox on a blanket and given to a whole tribe." But it was like, we survived before and we'll survive again. We just need to take care of each other. So that's what we did

How have those in your community found a place in conversations around police violence, systemic racism and Black Lives Matter protests in this past year?

I think we had a lot of discussions with our community around [police violence], too. And how, you know, they're not feeling really safe, either… because our native people are also attacked a lot by police… So, a lot of our native community were out marching and… there was kind of a connection there that they really felt with others. And, and again, it's like being heard, so I think it was really helpful. We do think that our community has really grown from that, and has come together.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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