Native American Mental Health: Understanding the Complexities of Historical Trauma

Native American is a term collectively used for the diverse groups of indigenous people who have inhabited North America for thousands of years before the arrival of European colonizers. Their rich history and culture have been overshadowed by centuries of forced assimilation, cultural genocide, and atrocities. As a result, Native Americans experience unique mental health challenges rooted in a history of trauma and displacement. This article aims to provide an overview of Native American mental health and the challenges that hinder their access to resources.

The Historical Context of Native American Mental Health

Native Americans have experienced centuries of colonization, oppression, and cultural genocide. The dispossession of land and resources, forced assimilation, boarding school programs, and spiritual suppression has caused significant psychological distress and trauma to Native American communities. The trauma experienced by Native Americans is intergenerational, passed through generations through cultural and familial ties. The descendants of Indigenous families often carry the collective trauma of their ancestors, and this historical trauma manifests in various disorders ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to depression and anxiety.

Apart from the historical trauma, Native Americans also experience socio-economic inequalities that affect their mental health. According to the National Council on Urban Indian Health, Native Americans experience poverty rates twice as high as the US average, leading to challenges in accessing basic resources such as healthcare, housing, and education. These challenges, coupled with the lingering effects of historical trauma, put Native Americans at risk of developing mental health disorders.

Common Mental Health Disorders Among Native Americans

Native Americans experience a disproportionate burden of mental health disorders compared to other ethnic groups in the US. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Native Americans have elevated rates of depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and suicide.

Depression and anxiety: Depression and anxiety are common mental health disorders among Native Americans. These disorders can arise from experiences of historical trauma, the complexity of cultural identity, and the lack of access to culturally sensitive mental health resources.

Substance use disorders: Substance use disorders are prevalent among Native Americans, attributed to the social and economic challenges that prime individuals for addiction. Native American youth, in particular, fall prey to substance abuse as a coping mechanism to deal with intergenerational trauma.

Suicide: Suicide rates among Native Americans are the highest in the US, with the suicide mortality rate among Native American youth 2.5 times that of their non-native counterparts. This grim statistic is linked to several factors, such as historical trauma, substance abuse, and socio-economic marginalization.

Challenges in Accessing Mental Health Resources

The colonialist history of the US has perpetuated the medicalization of mental health and disregard for traditional Native American healing practices. While traditional healing practices were once central to Native American cultures, contemporary Western medicine has considerably displaced such practices. Moreover, the availability of mental health services in Native American communities is limited due to various challenges, including:

– Lack of funding: Mental health services in Native American communities are underfunded, primarily due to the lack of government support.

– Stigma: The stigma around mental health issues is high in Native American communities, leading to underreporting of such issues.

– Cultural barriers: The cultural divide between Native American communities and non-Native American mental health professionals limits the effectiveness of therapies and hinders the trust between the therapist and patient.

– Geographical barriers: The remote location of many Native American communities makes it challenging to access mental health care centers.

The Way Forward

To address the mental health disparities experienced by Native Americans, a holistic approach that combines traditional and western healing practices is necessary. Effective mental health services should be culturally sensitive, drawing on traditional healing techniques such as smudging, sweat lodges, and talking circles. Additionally, it is essential to increase government funding for native communities to facilitate access to mental health services, education, and resources.

Moreover, reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues can increase the willingness of Native Americans to seek mental health care. This effort can be through the establishment of community-based organizations that focus on creating awareness and advocacy work in mental health care. Lastly, addressing socio-economic disparities such as poverty rates, inadequate education, and inadequate access to health care is integral to improving the overall well-being and mental health of Native American communities.


Native American mental health is complex and challenging, with the historical trauma and socio-economic challenges being significant contributors. Collaborative efforts are required to address these challenges and bridge the gap between Western and traditional healing practices to provide effective mental health care to Native American communities. By ensuring the availability of adequately trained mental health professionals, government funding, and reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues, Native Americans can overcome the mental health barriers they face and achieve better overall health and wellbeing.


1. What are the common mental health issues affecting Native Americans?

There are several common mental health issues affecting Native Americans, including depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and suicide. These issues are often caused by historical trauma, social and economic disparities, and discrimination.

2. What is the role of culture in Native American mental health?

Culture plays a significant role in Native American mental health. Traditional healing practices can help individuals connect with their cultural identity, and community support can provide a sense of belonging and purpose. Cultural resilience and spiritual wellness are also important components of Native American mental health.

3. How can mental health services be improved for Native Americans?

Improving mental health services for Native Americans requires addressing systemic issues such as poverty, lack of access to healthcare, and cultural barriers. Mental health services should be culturally responsive and designed to meet the unique needs of Native American communities. This can include incorporating traditional healing practices and increasing access to culturally competent mental health professionals.


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2. Duran, E., Duran, B., & Yellow Horse Brave Heart, M. (2013). Native American postcolonial psychology. SUNY Press.

3. Gone, J. P. (2013). Redressing First Nations historical trauma: Theorizing mechanisms for indigenous culture as mental health treatment. Transcultural Psychiatry, 50(5), 683-706. doi:10.1177/1363461513503389