Talking about mental health is key to healing

By Chris Jennings
May 1, 2023

Millions of families face the reality of living with a mental illness each year.

In 1949, May was designated Mental Health Awareness Month to bring more attention to this reality.

American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) face disproportional rates of mental health disorders, including suicide, violence and behavior-related morbidity and mortality.

Studies show AI/AN have higher rates of mental health problems.

These high rates result in AI/AN people reporting serious psychological distress, 2.5 times more than the general population over a month.

When it comes to who can be affected by mental health issues, the answer is everyone.

“Unfortunately, it can affect anyone and everyone. It really knows no bounds-there are risk factors for certain ones, but there is no way to predict who it will affect and, in turn, the families/loved ones it will also affect,” said Shauna Humphreys, director of Choctaw Nation Behavioral Health.

Mental health is an all-encompassing term that covers a lot of areas.

“When I think of mental health, I look at the whole body. Your physical health includes mental health and how you live your life at that moment,” said April Spears, a behavioral health case manager for the Choctaw Nation.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, Physical health problems significantly increase your risk of developing mental health problems, and vice versa.

Nearly one in three people with a long-term physical health condition also have a mental health problem, most often depression or anxiety.

One of the best ways to improve physical health is to get outside. Research shows that exercise releases endorphins, also known as feel-good chemicals, in the brain.

Even a short burst of 10 minutes of brisk walking can improve your mental alertness, energy and mood.

“There’s a direct connection to being outdoors and being physically active to improving overall well-being, decreasing depression, improving your mood and getting your metabolism going,” said Dr. Karina Walters, the incoming director of the Tribal Health Research Office at the National Institute of Health. “All of that really makes a huge difference. Even a 10-minute walk can have a positive impact on your mental health.”

Spending time in nature is linked to many positive mental health outcomes, including improved focus, lower stress, better mood, reduced risk of developing mental health conditions and a sense of connection to yourself, community, and purpose.

The good news is you don’t have to go on a bike hike in a forest or run a marathon to get these benefits. It can be simply walking in a park or sitting outside.

These steps are good for preventing some mental health issues. However, many people may not be aware or recognize they need help.

The Nation is on top of that, though.

Every time you go to a Choctaw Nation health clinic, you’re given a mental health screening as part of your intake.

“We do mental health screenings with every person at every visit. If they walk in for a doctor’s appointment, they will receive a screening on depression/mental health,” said Humphreys.

Based on these screenings, an integrated counselor may be brought in to speak with you.

“Anything that’s over a certain amount, the nurse notices, and then she can bring in one of our integrated counselors that we have in all of our clinics,” Spears said. “They can start that process of just asking how you’re doing, and it kind of just goes from there.”

There are also things you can do to keep an eye on the well-being of your friends and family members.

According to Spears, there are red flags you can watch for.

“It’s making sure there are no changes in their normal behaviors. That can be anything from not wanting to eat, not wanting to go to school or not participating in activities they normally want to participate in,” said Spears.

If you notice that something may not be right, it’s essential to let them know it’s okay to talk about it.

“Often reaching out for help is a sign of weakness, and we need to change that; it’s a sign of wisdom,” said Humphreys.

The stigma of talking about mental health is one of the biggest detriments to the healing process.

Walters wants people to understand that talking about these things is okay.

“This is okay to talk about. It’s not that this person’s weak; it’s that their plates are loaded, and they need some support…You don’t have to suffer in silence; this is something that we can talk about,” Walters said.

A possible sign that some of this stigma is being lifted is the number of celebrities that have come forward to talk about their mental health.

Ryan Reynolds has said he’s struggled with anxiety most of his life.

Meghan Markle has spoken about her suicidal ideation while she was pregnant.

Dwayne’ The Rock” Johnson has talked about his struggles with depression.

Megan Thee Stallion also has a song where she raps about her anxiety and handling grief and trauma while being in the spotlight.

These conversations have helped to begin to destigmatize talking about mental health.

Spears says people often open up once they overcome this stigma and learn more about therapy.

“Stigma has always been a huge issue within behavioral health, but what we like to do is educate people. I think once they’re educated and understand therapy and how it works, they’re more open to it,” said Spears.

It’s not just adults with grown-up problems that face mental health issues; children also struggle with them. The Nation has ways of helping.

“We offer outpatient counseling for all ages, we have counselors certified in play therapy, we also have animal-assisted therapy, the Youth Center in Talihina is a safe place kids can go after school for that rural community, and we have grants that offer prevention activities and information to youth,” Humphreys said.

Experts agree that being proactive in discussing mental health is vital as a parent.

You can expect your child to be stressed sometimes with homework, sports or just friends at school. It’s essential to encourage them to talk and to thank them for opening up when they do.

Walters says it’s important to pay attention to changes in children.

“The biggest thing is if you notice a change in behavior with young people, pay attention to that. Be patient, but you’ve got to reach out to your teenagers even though they may reject it at first,” Walters said. “It’s very important that they know you’re there for them and that you see them. And be open to maybe hearing things they’re afraid to share with you.”

You don’t have to have all the answers as a parent or family member. You can talk to counselors at any of the Choctaw Nation Clinics.

The Choctaw Nation Warrior Wellness program and the Operation Pop-Smoke app are available if you’re a veteran.

Individuals and family members facing mental or substance use disorders can call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at 988 for those in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.

The Crisis Text Line offers immediate help by texting NATIVE to 741-741.

No matter how you seek help for yourself or your friends or family members, it’s important to remember you have a community to rely on.

“One of the biggest protective factors for mental health is being connected and having a sense of belonging and community. Community can do that; family can do that; church can do that,” said Walters. “There are all kinds of ways that help people be connected that make a big difference in people’s well-being.”