July 2021




  • June is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month
  • The U.S. federal government recognizes 573 Indigenous tribes
  • The leading cause of death for Indigenous youth is suicide

For training/consultation requests please contact us at ccrtr@ubhc.rutgers.edu

The Mental Health of Indigenous Youth in America

 By: Melissa Donadio, M.A.

In 2008, June was formally recognized as National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month to highlight unique experiences and struggles that historically excluded groups face regarding mental illness in the United States (Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month to Enhance Public Awareness of Mental Illness, Especially Within Minority Communities, 2008). While these groups include all BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals, this article will focus on the Indigenous population in America. Approximately 4.2 million Americans, or 1.3%, have Indigenous heritage (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020), and there is a wide variety of cultures within this population. For instance, the federal American government recognizes 573 Indigenous tribes that speak over 200 different languages (Indian Health Service, 2019) Despite their cultural differences, all Indigenous people have been significantly influenced by racism and other systemic issues that can negatively impact their mental health.

When European colonists arrived in America, they brought with them a conviction in manifest destiny which they believed gave them a divine right to the land and its possessions, including Indigenous people (Deloria, 2003; Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014). This led to federal policies that removed Indigenous people from their land, attempts to eradicate their beliefs and cultural practices, and the removal of Indigenous children from their homes and placement into residential schools to assimilate them into European culture (Pevar, 2012). These actions occurred because of colonists’ belief that Indigenous cultures were inferior to their own, and this idea of European superiority continues to affect Indigenous youth today. For example, scholars have coined the term Race-Based Traumatic Stress (RBTS), which refers to the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias, ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes (Helms, Nicolas, & Green, 2010). Although this is not a diagnosable mental illness, Indigenous youth face high rates of discrimination and hate crimes that influence their experiences of RBTS. For instance, the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified 4,200 hate crimes in 2015, with 3.4% of them against Indigenous people. This figure is statistically significant since Indigenous people represent only 1.3% of the total U.S. population (U.S. Department of Justice, 2016). Moreover, studies show that only about 10% of victims of hate crimes even report them to police (U(U.SDepartment of Justice, 2016). Experiencing this systemic racism and discrimination has led to disproportionate rates of mental health challenges in Indigenous youth.

Partly due to RBTS, Indigenous youth experience disproportionate rates of suicide and mental illness compared to White Americans. For example, suicide is the leading cause of death for Indigenous youth ages 10-24-years-old, and Indigenous youth suicide rates are 2.5 times higher than the national average (Curtin, Hedegaard, & Warner, 2018). Likewise, 22% of Indigenous youth are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is three times higher than the rate of their White peers (Department of Justice, 2014). Indigenous youth also have the highest lifetime prevalence rates of Major Depressive Disorder compared to White Americans, and Indigenous children are 70% more likely to be identified in school as students with an emotional disturbance (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2012). In addition, 38.7% of Indigenous youth aged 12 to 17-year-old have had a lifetime prevalence of illicit drug use. Compared with the national average for youth of the same ages, Indigenous adolescents have the highest rates of lifetime tobacco product use, marijuana use, and nonmedical use of prescriptions (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2012). While these statistics are alarming, caregivers if Indigenous youth can help promote resilience and emotional well-being.

A recent study demonstrated that access to green spaces and forests reduces youths’ risk of experiencing emotional and behavioral problems while improving cognitive abilities (Meas et. al., 2021). This is especially true for indigenous youth whose culture suggests that health and nature involve broader spiritual meanings (Hatala et. al., 2020). Thus, spending time in nature can promote resilience, mental health, and overall well-being for Indigenous youth. Other cultural practices that are passed down through generations can assist Indigenous youth by providing healing from RBST. These practices include healing circles, powwows, traditional medicine (cedar, sweetgrass, and sage), and storytelling. Indigenous youth can also be supported by tribe Elders or traditional healers to assist them in connecting to their culture and identity. However, it is important to remember that Indigenous healing practices are to be engaged in by Indigenous people. Therefore, non-indigenous caretakers have an important role in connecting indigenous youth with people from their culture. In summary, caretakers of Indigenous youth can take the following steps to help promote healing and well-being:

  • Connect youth with peers and elders of their heritage
  • Encourage youth to spend time in nature
  • Educate yourself on Indigenous cultures and the systemic experiences faced by Indigenous youth
  • Be aware of mental health challenges experienced by Indigenous youth
  • Be mindful of your role as a non-indigenous caretaker
  • Provide youth with culturally relevant stories, information, and healing options


  • www.wearenative.org a comprehensive health resource for Indigenous youth by Indigenous youth that promotes holistic health and traditional healing
  • www.oneskycenter.org The American Indian/Alaska Native National Resource Center for Health, Education, and Research
  • www.strongheartshelpline.org The StrongHearts Native Helpline (1-844-762-8483) is a confidential and anonymous culturally-appropriate domestic violence and dating violence helpline for Indigenous Americans, available every day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. CT.
  • http://www.npaihb.org/thrive/ Suicide prevention training for Indigenous communities by Indigenous leaders
  • Crisis Line for Racial Equity Support: Call 503-575-3764 Monday to Friday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm PST – This service line is dedicated to and staffed by BIPOC, who all possess lived experience of racism that enables them to effectively provide support.
  • https://blog.nativehope.org/topic/health-and-wellness A blog run by Indigenous people to promote hope and healing within their communities.


Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month to Enhance Public Awareness of Mental Illness, Especially Within Minority Communities, to H.Con.Res.134, 110th Congress. (2008). https://www.congress.gov/bill/110th-congress/house-concurrent-resolution/134/text

Curtin S., Hedegaard, H., & Warner, M. (2018). Mortality in the United States, 1999-2017. NCHS Data Brief. 2018 Nov;(330):1-8.

Deloria V. God is red: A Native view of religion. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing; 2003.

Dunbar-Ortiz R. An indigenous peoples’ history of the United States. Boston, MA: Beacon Press; 2014.

Hatala, A.R., Njeze, C., Morton, D. et al. Land and nature as sources of health and resilience among Indigenous youth in an urban Canadian context: a photovoice exploration. BMC Public Health 20, 538 (2020). doi:10.1186/s12889-020-08647-z

Helms, J. E., Nicolas, G., & Green, C. E. (2010). Racism and ethnoviolence as trauma: Enhancing professional training. Traumatology, 16(4), 53–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/1534765610389595

Indian Health Service. (2019).  Retrieved from: https://www.ihs.gov/newsroom/factsheets/disparities/#:~:text=American%20percent20Indians%20percent20and%20percent20Alaska%20percent20Natives%20percent20continue%20percent20to%20percent20die%20percent20at%20percent20higher,and%20percent20chronic%20percent20lower%20percent20respiratory%20percent20diseases

Maes, M., Pirani, M., Booth, S., Shen, C., Milligram, B., Jones, K., & Toledano, M. (2021). Benefit of woodland and other natural environments for adolescents’ cognition and mental health. Nature Sustainability. doi: 10.1038/s41893-021-00751-1

Pevar S. The rights of Indians and tribes. 3rd. New York: Oxford University Press; 2012.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). American Indian/Alaska Native Data. Retrieved from: https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/topics/tribal_affairs/ai-an-data-handout.pdf

United States Census Bureau. Quick facts. Retrieved from: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST120215/00

United States Department of Justice. (2014). Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence: Ending Violence So Children Can Thrive. Retrieved from: https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/defendingchildhood/pages/attachments/2014/11/18/finalaianreport.pdf

United States Department of Justice. (2016). Hate Crime Statistics. Retrieved from: https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime/2015/topic-pages/incidentsandoffenses_final.pdf