Amador County is one of a dozen rural communities in California struggling with high rates of suicide. The problem is tied to poverty, substance abuse, a lack of psychiatrists and a culture of silence around depression and other mental health issues. But a subpopulation of Native American residents are navigating their own unique challenges.
There are three federally recognized tribes in the county and more in the surrounding area. Nationally, Native American young adults have higher suicide rates than any other group.
Alex Abarca is behavioral health director for the Mariposa, Amador, Calaveras & Tuolumne Health Board. He said much of the pain that leads to substance abuse, gambling addiction and suicidal thoughts dates back to the violent history between Native Americans and colonizers.
“Generational trauma goes back hundreds of years,” he said. “Most of us will neglect it, distract ourselves from it. … But eventually that coping mechanism is going to break down and we’re going to have a crisis.”
He said Native Americans who stay connected to their culture and make use of local healers gain a “protective factor” that can help combat addiction, depression and other challenges.
A UC Davis study of mental health in Native American communities found that tribal members with a tie to their native language, traditional ceremonies, healing techniques and crafts gain more positive views of themselves and their culture. They are also less likely to suffer from depression and addiction.
Joni Drake, site manager of the Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families office in Jackson, said county leaders don’t always consider those Native practices a valid option.
“I want to be able to bring that to the table, because I don’t want them to poo-poo it,” she said. “We need to allow them to explore that opportunity to talk and have that medicine, to go into a sweat. When you’re in there, that cleansing, the messages, the ancients are able to help with that healing.”
The Native American community recently met with county staff for a roundtable conversation about how to prevent suicide across demographics. They plan to roll out community talk groups and other grassroots efforts this year.
They’re also hoping to train county behavioral health staff on generational trauma and encourage them to refer Native American patients to tribal healing resources.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can find additional resources, including programs for youth, seniors, veterans and Native Americans, here.
This project is funded by a USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism grant.