“All communities face unique challenges or barriers in addressing mental health issues.”
This opening statement stands out to anyone viewing the NAMI’s, National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month website. Mental health issues are difficult enough for those native to our country. Add cultural, geographical, and language barriers, and you are faced with an impossible quest for guidance. The stigma of mental illness and not knowing where to go, are common barriers that can be debilitating when looking for help.
The only way to bridge this gap is through relationships built on trust.
I recently began working with a family who has faced countless challenges in the struggle to find mental health treatment for their child. Thinking about them causes me to pause and catch my breath, hoping I can maintain their trust. I want this youth to become mentally healthy and return home to his family. To his tribe.
The family’s trust is big. This is a Native American family from outside of the U.S. Despite the lack of professional resources in the area, the impact of historical damage permeates the culture. Due to the history of removal of native children by white establishments and the history of genocide in North America, there is a mistrust of “mainstream” services when attempts are made to provide mental health services to Native families. This is especially true when residential treatment is offered, as the term “residential school” was employed until the 1980’s to remove native children from their native homes.
Families that pursue this type of treatment for their children are extending trust to the agency they work with, and are risking further removal from their culture by way of living outside of their communities. They are concerned with losing touch with their already shrinking traditions and need to be assured that having their child return to the family and culture of origin is a true goal.
We went thru a process with this Native American community to allow them to take the risk. It took time. To even interview this youth, Spurwink had to achieve a level of trustworthiness. We had to show them our honest empathy and care for this youth. We listened to their stories. We listened to their tribal presentation about how youth are underserved. We were invited to share descriptions of our program and treatment to larger groups of people in the culture.
To then allow this youth to live and engage in mental health treatment out of his country, the elders and family had to believe that we respected and understood their culture and rituals and belief systems. We needed to train all the staff that lived, schooled, and treated this youngster in these cultural features. Then we had to assure and deliver a level of transparency that allows for continual communication with the family and tribe. As a campus, we have had to learn how to weave this family’s beliefs in to the treatment that this youth is receiving on our campus.
Eventually Spurwink was granted the significant opportunity to help this youngster who was struggling immensely with mental health problems.
I have learned a great deal from this opportunity to expand our treatment to another culture. To learn how people with a way of life and priorities and heritage so foreign to me can find common ground with what I can offer clinically, speaks volumes about the power of being human. I have learned about Native American traditions and come to respect events that previously were off my radar. And this youth is now safe and learning ways to maintain mental health. I look forward to him returning home with both psychological healing and practical strategies to sustain the healthier mental health, and life, found while at Spurwink.
It has been so gratifying to realize that I have been part of the team that has been able to appreciate and positively impact a new culture. I have been touched by seeing firsthand how staff are not only able, but willing, to embrace the cultural differences when working with this child and the family in order create an environment of acceptance We have bridged country and ethnic lines that otherwise divide us. It is empowering. So many times I hear the message in my head saying, “They are simply people, just people, regardless of their color or ethnicity or country”. I do this work to help people. It is that simple. Truly.
I am a much better person to have forged and strengthened a relationship across those boundaries. I’m moved and thrilled that the parents and family are so grateful for our work.
I think about this month of awareness – helping minorities and those underserved. From my experience with this one youth and family, I want to shout to everyone, “Don’t be afraid of cultural diversity. Take the time to discover the common humanness you share with each person, regardless of how different you are.”
And I’m pleased to contribute to reducing stigma about mental health issues and integrating new perspectives in our treatment approach.
It’s this kind of experience that keeps me loving my job.
By Bill Messer, LCSW
Residential Program Director