Mental Health Awareness

Mental health continues to be a top priority for Choctaw Nation

By Chris Jennings
May 3, 2024

Studies show that Native Americans have a higher rate of mental health problems, resulting in psychological distress at rates 2.5 times higher than the general population.

The disproportionately higher mental health disorders such as suicide, violence, and behavior-related morbidity and mortality in American Indian and Alaska Native communities continue to be an important issue for many tribes.

The Choctaw Nation is no exception. The Nation offers several different ways to help with mental health, including counseling for both individuals and families, case management services, substance abuse counseling, child or partner abuse counseling, psychiatric medication (evaluation and management), crisis intervention and suicide prevention.

Even with all these programs, getting the ball rolling with care can be hard.

According to Shauna Humphreys, the Director of Behavioral Health for the Choctaw Nation, the stigma of talking about mental health issues is one of the biggest struggles to overcome.”When it comes to mental health, a lot of people think that it’s a sign of weakness if you’re struggling or have to reach out for help, but really, it’s a sign of wisdom, knowing when you need help,” said Humphreys.

A person’s mental health is a state of balance that can change under times of stress. Sometimes, though, such as with a mental illness, it’s a diagnosable condition caused by a biological disruption.

“Mental health is something everyone has and is always there. It can be positive or negative, just like everyone has physical health and different degrees of it,” said Humphreys. “However, mental illness comes into play when it truly affects a person’s ability to function over a long period of time.”
Humphreys says it’s important to know the difference between feeling sad or stressed and having biological imbalances in the brain, and that’s why seeking professional help is important.

“They [mental health and mental illness] are often used incorrectly or used interchangeably. It’s important to know the difference to reduce stigma and seek help when needed,” Humphreys said.

Before feeling stressed or having a bad day, Humphreys suggests having coping strategies or getting support from others. “When we notice we’re not feeling well, and it affects our functioning, we seek help. We wouldn’t ignore our mental health just as we wouldn’t ignore our physical health,” said Humphreys. “It’s all connected—culturally, the mind, body and soul are connected. If your body or your soul doesn’t feel good, it can affect your mind.”

Children and young adults are not immune to mental health issues. According to the 2022 National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report, mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The report showed that up to 20% of children ages 3 to 17 in the United States have a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder.

Another alarming statistic from the report is that from 2009 to 2019, the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased from 26% to 37%.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and brought youth mental health into a brighter light, the statistics show that it was a developing problem before that.

Several things could cause mental health issues in youth and adolescents. Abuse, trauma and neglect are just a few.

Social media can be another source of mental health issues for young people.

According to a Surgeons General report, up to 95% of youth ages 13–17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly.”

The report ultimately says that more research is needed to understand social media’s impact fully; however, the current body of evidence seems to show that while social media may have benefits for some children and adolescents, there are several signs that it can also harm their mental health and well-being.

The report also shows several positive effects of social media. For example, the ability to form and maintain friendships online and develop social connections through social media can be beneficial for youth.

These relationships present opportunities for positive interactions with more diverse peer groups than are available to them offline, providing them with important social support.

This social support from peers can be especially important for youth who are often marginalized, including racial, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities. Seven out of ten adolescent girls of color report encountering positive or identity-affirming content related to race across social media platforms.
For all the positives, there are also downsides, and studies show that limiting social media access can have positive effects as well.

It’s important to monitor your child’s social media usage and how it may affect their mental health.

Humphreys says parents can watch out for several things. “If you see your kid struggling or their regular patterns changing, whether they’re eating more or less, or they may not be sleeping as much as normal, whether they’re just not being their normal selves, or whether they’re not really motivated or want to participate in things that they used to participate in, please reach out, and we can help answer any questions,” Humphreys said.

Parents can limit the dangers inherent in social media by creating a family media plan, creating tech-free zones, modeling responsible social media behavior, teaching kids about technology and encouraging them to report cyberbullying.

If things ever get to a point where you think help is needed, either for yourself or a loved one, regardless of their age, the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is there for you.

The 988 Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week, anywhere in the United States.

Due to a partnership with the agency that runs the 988 program in Oklahoma, when a tribal member calls 988 from Oklahoma and tells them they’re Choctaw, the Nation can follow up with them to make sure they get the care they need.

Humphreys says listening is an important tool when talking to someone about their mental health struggles. There are some things that you shouldn’t say, like, “‘I understand.’ Even though that sounds like an innocent thing to say, depending on what they’re going through, unless you’ve been in those exact shoes, you really don’t understand,” Humphreys said.

Another mistake is telling people to pull themselves out of it or toughen up. “We wouldn’t tell someone who needed insulin to toughen up or to pull yourself up by your bootstraps; we would direct them to the doctor to get help,” Humphreys said.

Native Americans are at a higher risk for mental health and substance abuse. Many things could be the root cause for that, the highest being generational trauma.

Humphreys sees the work they’re doing now as a way to turn that around.

“I’m ready for the day when we can flip that script [so that] Native Americans are no longer the highest for mental health or substance use issues,” Humphreys said.

Taking care of yourself and your loved ones is important, though.

Humphreys added, “We try to exercise, eat right and get plenty of rest to prevent any major physical illnesses or conditions…Just like physical health, everyone should be looking after their mental health.”

The Choctaw Nation has several different ways for you to get the mental health help you need. The following is just a brief list of some of the available services.

Behavioral Health

Providing a variety of mental health services for adults, adolescents, and children.
Individual counseling.

  • Family Counseling
  • Case Management Services
  • Substance Abuse Counseling
  • Child/Partner Abuse Counseling
  • Psychiatric Medication
  • (Evaluation/ Management)
  • Crisis Intervention
  • Suicide Prevention
  • Several grant assisted programs

Warrior Wellness

McAlester – 918-302-0052
Durant – 580-916-9238
Provides a variety of programs and events for Native American veterans to enhance their mental health in partnership with the U.S. Dept. of Veteran Affairs through the SSG Fox Suicide Prevention grant

  • Weekend family retreats
  • Animal-assisted services
  • Equine services
  • Trail riding
  • Hiking and Fishing
  • Ropes course
  • Gardening
  • Family enrichment
  • Cultural enrichment
  • Income support assistance
  • Peer support

Chi Hullo Li

A residential treatment facility in Talihina that offers a long-term, comprehensive and culturally sensitive program for Native American women with or without children.

Men’s Recovery Center

A 60-day residential substance use disorder treatment facility with licensed and certified staff dedicated to providing quality substance use disorder treatment services.