Indians of Isolation

For many people, beginning the day is as easy as brewing a cup of coffee, maybe even going for a morning run, or reading a good book to boost the brain. All the remedies are present, and there is certainty the day will be a positive one. For others however, waking up and beginning the day is where the difficulty starts.

Everyday, Yvonne Tree greets the morning with a blessing. She shows admiration in her life, her family, and her spirituality. More so, she shows full blessing and dedication in taking care of her older brother, Thomas Tree. Thomas, who is described as having a joyful personality, also suffers from schizophrenia. It is a crucial mental condition that causes him to experience auditory and visual hallucinations, something he has struggled with daily since he was 20-years-old. Yvonne has sworn to be by her brother’s side whenever his condition calls for support, and has since put in an effort in spreading the word of mental health awareness. The only problem is no one seems to listen.

“We need to heal within ourselves, family, community, and society,” Tree stated. “As native people, we continue to die young.  We need to see everyone’s potential. [My brother] takes life one-step at a time. I learned a lot from him about life and being appreciative with what you have. He has the right of his existence like everybody else on this planet. I have nothing but respect for him.”

Yvonne personally understands the discomfort and pain resulted from mental illness as she herself has struggled with ADD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), one of the most common anxiety conditions that generally start during childhood.

“When I was little, I didn’t do well in school,” she addressed. “Alcoholism and violence went on at home. When I got stressed, I became depressed and thought everything was my fault. When a child lives in that environment, they don’t get proper guidance. Their personalities get reformed and are carried throughout their life. Native Americans were never set up to succeed in this [civilization] because the western society taught us how to discriminate against each other. Until we see the elephant in the room and address it, then we will never get better.”

Within the past decade, a surging epidemic has engulfed the reservations across the U.S. It is an issue that has taken the lives of many native people, far more than any diseases in American history. The epidemic consuming the lives of native people every day is suicide. According to federal government figures, the number of Native American teens and young adults who have killed themselves is more than triple the rate compared to other young Americans. The high suicide rate has been linked to recurring instances on tribal reservations, including domestic violence, drug/alcohol abuse, lack of awareness, and historical trauma.

To this day, approximately 26.2 percent of Americans age 18, and one in four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, which translates roughly to 57.7 million people. Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are just a few of the common illnesses people become diagnosed with. Moreover, they are the common conditions that cause many natives to take their own lives each year. With those statistics, mental health is something that should be taken into consideration within communities, according to tribal psychologist, Jennifer GoodTracks.

“When people try to understand illnesses’, they don’t separate the physical health from the emotional health,” GoodTracks said. “We have medical people here who recognize mental health disorders and we collaborate on those. If there is a law set for physical disability in the workplace, then why isn’t the same set for mental disabilities? What do we do for those who are internally suffering? They feel discriminated, and it adds on to everything.”

People who struggle with mental illness live their daily lives in discomfort, irritability, and physical pain. It is one of the most misinterpreted conditions because of a lack of education. Telling someone who’s struggling with a disorder that it’s “all in your head” is the sole reason mental illness is misunderstood, because if untreated, unfortunate outcomes may take effect in the future.

What could begin as stress/anxiety may eventually result with physical risks on the body, including high blood pressure, chest pains, upset stomach, substance abuse, diabetes, and insomnia. Common life threatening issues that could result from these risks may include ulcers, seizures, strokes, and psychosis.

“People don’t have to be scared of getting treatments,” GoodTracks added. “It’s okay to ask questions about the issue and address it. It’s important for them to take care of their problems, otherwise it consumes them. I think there are prominent leaders that need to speak to their people about mental health, because the tribal membership must be heard. We have a powerful voice, and we have the freedom to express it.”

Lately, the Southern Ute Health Center has opened their doors with open arms for anyone who feels they are struggling with mental illness. As suicide rates in native communities continue to rise, it has become a goal for providers to ensure that the mind, body, and soul is all apart of a person’s well being.

“One of the things with mental health is that it’s important to identify the issue early before things get bad,” said Dr. Mary Trujillo Young, behavioral health manager. “If someone doesn’t feel right with themselves or a family member, then that’s an important sign. Whether it’s bags under the eyes or isolation in the bedroom, action should be taken. People will sweep it under the rug because it’s seen as a character flaw, when that’s absolutely not true. We really want people to see what can be provided for those who are struggling rather than alienate them.”

Life has many crossroads, and sometimes they don’t seem to end. It takes strength and effort to understand the stigma of mental illness, but every supportive voice is what could save someone’s life in the end, according to Yvonne Tree.

“Lift each other up and advocate,” Tree requested. “I live a spiritual life. I saw too many deaths from too many natives, and I even thought I’d die that way. I’m okay with who I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. I’m not hiding from it anymore, because all I am is me.”

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