Addressing Youth Mental Health in the Cherokee Nation

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker signs a proclamation declaring the month of May as National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Month while surrounded by Behavioral Health and Health Services staff and Sequoyah High School students.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker signs a proclamation declaring the month of May as National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Month while surrounded by Behavioral Health and Health Services staff and Sequoyah High School students.

Guest Commentary

The Cherokee Nation’s HERO Project is actively targeting the stigma that surrounds mental health, especially in our most vulnerable population – our children.  I am so proud the HERO (Helping Everyone Reach Out) Project is working to de-stigmatize mental health, including causes and treatments, within the Cherokee Nation.

During the month of May, we will raise awareness on ways to better address the needs of Cherokee children, youth and young adults. We have a responsibility to address and improve the emotional well-being of our youth by working to prevent childhood trauma and developing positive responses and teaching coping mechanisms when trauma does occur.

Mental health is essential to the overall health of individual Cherokees and the Cherokee Nation as a whole. As this administration has proven time and time again, the most important goal for the future of the Cherokee Nation is improved  access to quality health care for our tribal citizens.  With that in mind, we have adopted a holistic approach to quality care and made record investments that will improve wellness in our bodies, as well as our minds.

Mental health is now included in all our tribal public health conversations.

To truly combat the explosive numbers in Indian Country and the Cherokee Nation, we must treat mental, behavioral and emotional health challenges with the same urgency and respect as we treat physical health challenges.

The national data clearly shows the urgent need to address these issues early in our children’s lives:

  • 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 experience mental or neurological disorders annually.
  • Only 20 percent of those children get the help they need.
  • 1 in 4 parents find it difficult to secure mental health services for their child.

Like so many health disparities, those numbers are higher in Native communities. Unchecked trauma leads to lifelong issues like depression and even suicide. That’s why HERO is one of my favorite Cherokee Nation programs.  It fills a void that is so desperately needed and assists some very fragile young children.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker

Through HERO we are empowering families and communities to have conversations and build support networks across our 14-county jurisdiction. It’s essential to develop parent support groups to be a resource for one another, as peer to peer information sharing is vital. Additionally, the HERO Project has partnered with area schools, county and municipal governments to build programs targeted to young children, so they can feel comfortable and know they are supported when they need extra help.

We can make a lasting positive effect. That means healthier and more balanced children, who grow into healthy adults. Addressing the complex mental health needs of children is fundamental to the future of the Cherokee Nation.

During the month of May and beyond, I urge our citizens, schools and partner organizations to unite and ensure positive mental health development of our children and families remains a priority.

In the Cherokee language, the word for hero translates into “someone who is loved or admired.” That’s something we all wish for our children, something we wish for the Cherokee Nation.  We know that if children experience love and admiration, they go on to do great things.

Bill John Baker is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

 

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