Honoring Culture: A Public Health Approach


By: Ramon Bonzon, M.P.H., Public Health Advisor, Targeted Populations Branch, SAMHSA Center for Substance Abuse Treatment

November is National Native American Heritage Month. During this time, we celebrate and pay tribute to the rich ancestry and traditions of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives. We also shine a spotlight on some of the unique needs of their communities and some of the health disparities they face. Health outcomes for these communities are worse than the larger U.S. population in many ways. Whether it is from a higher rate of unintentional injuries, suicide or chronic liver disease, the life expectancy of American Indian and Alaskan Natives is five and a half years less than the larger U.S. population. SAMHSA is partnering with tribes and tribal organizations to reduce health disparities and promote better overall health.

I visited the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma in September 2017. Their history dates back hundreds of years through traditional practices, religion and cultural values. One of my goals was to learn how the tribe was using a SAMHSA Cooperative Agreement to provide treatment services for youth with substance use disorders. Equally important to me was the opportunity to learn more about the Kickapoo community and its culture, and to work toward developing culturally relevant programs to improve the communities SAMHSA serves.

What I saw during my visit was encouraging. It was exciting to hear how the tribe is using funding from SAMHSA to bring together health care and behavioral health services for tribal members.  Through SAMHSA programs like the Youth and Family TREE, Circles of Care, and Tribal Training and Technical Assistance Center, SAMHSA and its Office of Tribal Affairs and Policy is working to supporting Native communities to create environments where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full health potential.

Under the youth treatment program supported by SAMHSA funding, the Kickapoo are expanding capacity to address the needs of youth struggling with substance use and mental disorders. The program coordinates with community partners in mental health, education, employment, law enforcement and family services. The goal is to build and maintain a treatment system that includes services that meet the needs of the community. The young adults I had the chance to speak with expressed their hopes of making life better for their communities through these programs.

American Indian and Alaska Native tribes deserve access to health care that supports their communities’ opportunities for success. By increasing the number of trained providers implementing culturally appropriate evidence-based practices and assuring recovery services are part of the continuum of care, SAMHSA programs truly make a difference in helping the community thrive. In this work, we as health care providers must continue to understand and honor the culture of each community we engage and work with. It is the only effective way to address social determinants’ place in the healthcare needs of the people.


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