Is Mental Health Apart of Culture?


Lady Yazzie

If you are reading this, you may have answered the question, “Is Mental Health Apart of Culture?” Like many, most of you said “Yes.” The answer is: Yes, it has been apart of every culture in the world. Mental Health isn’t a new concept, especially to us, as Indigenous peoples of this world. The only “new” concept are the names, “Mental Health, Mental Illness, Depression, Anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” and others came from Western medicine/science fairly recently.

Mental Health has always been a major impact on our reservations. Recently, a Facebook post sparked some tension between Diné people. The post from Elizabeth* stated, “Suicide is not apart of Diné. You never heard of cheii or másaní hurting themselves or having mental disorders. They overcome hardships & obstacles. They chose to live a life of hózhó. Hózhó is about maintaining balance in life.” If you are Diné or any other Indigenous tribe, you should understand why many Diné people were disappointed in her post. She was disrespectful and hurt many of those individuals who are struggling with mental illness or know someone with a mental illness.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental illness is defined as follows, “A mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood. Such conditions may affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function each day. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis.” To put in a nutshell, mental illness is an actual health condition and like the common cold, it affects everyone differently. Just because “You never heard of cheii or másaní hurting themselves or having mental disorders,” doesn’t mean every elder dealt with their problems the same. Some may have had disorders but chose not to speak about it. Why? Colonization.

Colonization has made a devastating impact on our tribal language, culture, and people. Resulting in discrimination and oppression since 1492. These factors are what caused most of our elders to be silent about their traumatic experiences, from boarding schools, the relocation program, historical trauma, sexual abuse, and other forms of abuse. Our elders were often victims of violent crimes. Out of fear, they often tell their children and grandchildren, they are not to speak of such events because they were told, they were actually “causing more trouble” for themselves, than actually helping themselves. This is a tactic used by perpetrators to manipulate the victims into thinking they are the problem or asking for it. Yes, there are a few who did speak up or asked for help from our medicine people and had ceremonies to restore “Hózhó” in their lives.

The Diné word “Hózhó” doesn’t just mean balance. Hózhó, is our essence or the root of our Diné philosophy, describing beauty, order, balance, and harmony. Like Hózhó, mental illness has been apart of our culture since the beginning of time. Diné people created ceremonies to restore hózhó back into our lives if we became sick. We have a ceremony for those who have gone to war and are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and it’s to restore the patient’s mindset. There are also, tribal hospitals and referral programs that offer sweat lodges as treatment options, for those dealing with alcohol and substance abuse. These are two examples of ceremonies we as Diné people have to treat our illnesses.

Mental illness is actually a major issue on Diné reservation and other Indigenous reservations as well. This is something that should NOT be taken lightly. This subject should NOT be made fun of because it can trigger those who are suffering from mental illness. Instead, we need to share and education and stop shaming those who suffer from mental illness.

Some statistics we should share, also do your research:

    • 18% of adults in the United States have a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. Of that eighteen percent, 21% of those are Indigenous peoples of the United States.
    • 40% of Indigenous people who die by suicide that are between the ages of 15 to 24.
    • Indigenous have the highest rate of young adult suicide of any ethnicity.
    • The depression rate is 39% of Indigenous youth.
    • Native Americans experience Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more than twice as often than the general population.
    • Native Americans have the highest chance of being the victim of violence.

If you or someone you know needs someone to talk to please call the following lines:

++ If you wish to share a hotline(s) please leave a comment below with the information ++

Lady Yazzie (Asia Soleil Yazzie)

Health Education and Health Promotion -Student

of Arizona State University

*Name has been changed

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