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This young woman wants to Indigenize mental health care

KOSU's Allison Herrera (left) interviews Blu Cornell (right).
Sarah Adams-Cornell
KOSU's Allison Herrera (left) interviews Blu Cornell (right).

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, and according to Indian Health Services, American Indians and Alaska Natives are particularly vulnerable. Some Indigenous youth don't benefit from western style therapy.

Blu Cornell is preparing some fabric to make a ribbon skirt. It's red, with big blue flowers and has ribbon appliqué at the bottom. The skirt is a longstanding symbol of adaptation and survival among Indigenous women, and making the traditional skirt along with beading is something she does to quiet her mind, focus and reduce her anxiety.

Several years ago, Blu started having thoughts of self-harm and was scared for her safety.

"So that was the first time I came forward about having issues like this," said Blu Cornell. "I was shaken up whenever that happened, and I was just like freaking out. And that was the first time I had ever brought anything about that up."

Her mom, Sarah, was terrified, trying to figure out what she needed to do next

"Do I need to make sure that I'm with her every minute?" recalled Sarah Adams Cornell. "You know, all of these thoughts are just kind of racing through my head."

Blu eventually sought help-therapy and is on medication to help with the anxiety. But it wasn’t easy. As a Choctaw citizen, she could have received therapy through Indian Health Service, but chose not to. She had heard that a friend experienced a long wait time for emergency care.

She wants the system to change. She wants to Indigenize mental health care.

"There's a lack of mental health resources that are made available and specifically cater to indigenous people," said Blu. "It's not just if you're doing well physically, we take into consideration your spiritual health, your mental health, your physical health, and all these different factors that play into that."

The need is real.

Last year, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children's Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children's mental health due to lingering effects of the pandemic.

And, just last month, the Health and Human Services Department released a report that showed American Indian and Alaska Natives had a 64% greater chance of suicide than their Black, Asian, Hispanic and white peers.

Dee BigFoot is a child psychologist and the director of the Indian Country Child Trauma Center at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She also stresses the importance of culturally enhanced therapy practices.

"I see it as it's really reclaiming what has already been the healing practices that were already there," said Dee BigFoot.

Blu and Sarah met Dee through Matriarch. It’s an organization for Indigenous women, two spirit and non-binary people that focuses on wellness and culture. At organizations like this one, she teaches a class around trauma and healing by adapting cultural teachings into western style therapy.

" We culturally enhance the models, the therapeutic models that we use based on the tribal specific teachings," explained Dee.

So, for example, offering water, certain tribes have teachings about water-water can be grounding."

Dee says because of past experiences with social service organizations, many Indigenous people don’t trust professional mental health services. Something Blu agrees with. She also thinks that non-Native therapists don't know how to deal with something a lot of Native people struggle with: intergenerational trauma.

"Even if it didn't happen to you, it's something that happened to your grandmother or the ones that came before her," said Blu, explaining how intergenerational trauma works. "Then it would trickle down to the parents, and it alters their style of parenting or the way they raise you, because some of these grandparents were the children of boarding school survivors."

Blu is now taking classes online and is majoring in psychology and Native American studies. She says she takes things day by day with her mental health. She doesn't feel the stigma of talking about her issues like before-and that's because she has a community around her to get through it and grounding practices in her culture – like making ribbon skirts.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: dial 711, then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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