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The Immense Impact of the Coronavirus on Native Americans and Their Mental Health

There are already 3,607 confirmed cases of the coronavirus amongst Native American tribes in the United States. The coronavirus is disproportionately impacting Native American communities.

Why is that? For one, Native Americans often take responsibility for their own government services without the same level of funding that the government has.

Native Americans rely on their businesses, such as casinos, to fund these services.

Of course, the coronavirus has made it impossible to continue to run these businesses and get profits.

On top of that, they have no tax base to subsidize their losses. This is because tribes don’t tax their people.

Another factor that could lead to an increased impact of the coronavirus among Native American populations are certain health risks.

For example, it seems that Native Americans are more prone to certain conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. These underlying conditions increase the risk of experiencing severe illness from the coronavirus.

Many people, especially those with chronic conditions, experience fear and anxiety surrounding the coronavirus. This can be even more overwhelming if you are more vulnerable to the virus.

Many of the confirmed coronavirus cases come from the Navajo reservation made up of 173,000 Native Americans in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. However, tribes here in Michigan are experiencing similar circumstances.

In Michigan, there are 1,187 positive cases of the coronavirus among tribal populations.

There are 12 recognized tribes in Michigan with their own government. Executive orders, including those for the coronavirus, don’t apply to these tribes as they are sovereign states. However, the tribes have been taking similar measures as the rest of the United States to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Another factor in the prevalence of the coronavirus in Native American populations, which is roughly 2 million, is that they have the highest rates of poverty of any ethnic group in the United States. This leads to not having the resources to handle the virus.

One of the reasons for this poverty is a limitation of property rights for Native Americans. While land is trusted to Native Americans, they don’t own it and therefore can’t gain equity. Additionally, the United States has departments, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), that monitor the activities on reservations.

A Population in Need of Better Healthcare

The United States’ Native American populations have faced social and economic inequality throughout history.

The Navajo reservation alone has a 40% unemployment rate, which increases the risk of having health issues. Throughout the United States, Native American household incomes are roughly a third less than the national average.

With limited access to grocery stores and healthcare services on the Navajo reservation and a third of the population suffering from underlying conditions, tribal members have more contact with one another, which worsens the chance of getting the coronavirus.

There is a similar situation for tribes in Michigan. Tribes are dealing with overrun clinics and limited access to personal protective equipment (PPE). While they usually work with the federal government, they are being redirected to the state and local health departments.

Situations like this can be very stressful and can take a toll on the mental health of those experiencing the impacts of the coronavirus, especially for those who are at a higher risk. Stress and anxiety surrounding the coronavirus has other consequences, such as potentially leading to substance use.

Two young native american girls playing near tipis
While tribal governments receive some funding from the CARES Act, the delay in receiving this funding has only worsened the situation on these reservations.

Native Americans also receive some funding from the United States as the result of treaties. For example, the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), a United States department, gets some of this funding for Native American students. However, many of these students don’t go to the BIE’s schools.

Impacts of the Coronavirus on Mental Health and Addiction

In general, the coronavirus has led to job loss and isolation across the country. This is no different for Native populations, who have had to shut down their businesses that contribute the most to their economy.

Job loss and isolation have had consequences for mental health, addiction, and relapse. The main mental health implications of the virus have been widespread fear and anxiety.

This stress can lead to fears over health concerns, job security, and loss of support services. It can also take a toll on chronic conditions (which Native populations experience high rates of) and can lead to more substance use.

Having more stressors from the pandemic can lead people to start using substances or increase their preexisting use.

This can increase the likelihood of relapse, which already occurs in 40 to 60 percent of those who received treatment for a substance use disorder within a year.

During the pandemic in the United States, the rates of suspected overdoses increased by 18 percent in March. This number only worsened as the pandemic continued, leading to 29 percent in April and 42 percent in May.

If you or a loved one is experiencing problems with substance use during the pandemic, which is common, you should:

  • Talk to your healthcare provider.
  • Look for virtual treatment.
  • Continue taking prescribed medications and attending treatment programs or therapy virtually or in-person.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the leading cause of addiction?

Addiction is caused by the reward system in the brain providing positive reinforcement of substance use in the form of a feel-good response from dopamine. While there are factors that influence addiction, such as environment and trauma, these factors do not cause addiction. They only increase the probability of addiction.

What drugs do Native Americans use?

Some of the substances used within Native American communities include alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes, and other illicit drugs such as inhalants, hallucinogens, and cocaine. Alcohol use is more common for young Native Americans than other ethnic groups.

What should people who have existing mental health conditions do during this time?

If you have an existing mental health condition, it’s important to continue your course of treatment during this time. This includes therapy, medications, and support visits. If possible, it could be beneficial for your health to move your appointments to a virtual format. However, you can continue your treatment in-person or online. It’s also beneficial to:

  • Be aware of what you should do if you become sick.
  • Take care of your emotional state.
  • Occasionally disconnect from the news.
  • Take time to do the things you enjoy most.
  • Connect with family, friends, and organizations you’re a part of (even if virtually).
  • Look into ways of coping with stress, including meditation and exercise.
If you or a loved one is in need of substance use disorder treatment, we understand the cultural backgrounds of our patients. That’s why we tailor treatment to the individualized needs and culture of Native American populations. Learn more and start the treatment that Wellbriety at Skywood provides by calling us at 269.280.4673.