On June 20, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is scheduled to vote on whether or not to appoint Elicia Goodsoldier (Navajo / Spirit Lake Dakota Sioux) to its Board of Directors. If elected, Goodsoldier will become the second Native and only Native American woman on the NAMI national board. Because health disparities persist across diverse Native communities when compared to non-Native populations, Goodsoldier’s candidacy is significant.
NAMI is “the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to offering support, advocacy and educational programs to those living with or affected by someone they know living with a mental illness,” Goodsoldier says. She adds that the national office “provides strategic direction to the entire organization, support to NAMI's state and affiliate members, governs the NAMI corporation, and engages in advocacy, education and leadership development nationally” under the direction of the organization’s national board.
NAMI raises awareness about mental health issues, provides education regarding mental health, and acts as an advocate and provides support group programs for people struggling with mental health issues.
The need for this support in Indian country is great. In a 2010 fact sheet the American Psychiatric Association states that American Indians and Alaska Natives experience serious psychological distress 1.5 times more than the general population. The most significant mental health concerns among Natives cited in the Association's fact sheet are the high prevalence of depression, substance use, suicide and anxiety (including PTSD). “Although overall suicide rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives are similar to whites,” the report from the American Psychiatric Association Office of Minority and National Affairs goes on to state, “there are significant differences among certain age groups. Suicide is the leading cause of death among 10?34 year olds.”
This report places the greater mental health distress experienced by Natives in the context of what it calls “historical and current sociopolitical experiences.” The report explains, “Historical traumas, including forced relocations and cultural assimilation, numerous broken treaties, and other social, economic, and political injustices, continue to affect American Indians and Alaska Natives communities in significant ways,” and are “inherently tied” to these mental health disparities.
Goodsoldier understands this historical context and is poised to tackle mental health disparities Natives face today—without needing to surmount the high learning curve non-Natives too often face. “When treating the Native American population for mental health issues,” she says, “it is critical for providers to understand the history of Native people. Contemporary thinking correlates mental illness as a reaction to the history of forced oppression and trauma faced by Native Americans following the arrival of European settlers. The trauma suffered by generations of Native Americans has contemporary effects in both the community as well as the individual consciousness. I believe there is a developmental history of psychological distress that has resulted from genocide, ethnic cleansing, and forced acculturation, which many in the mental health field do not understand or even know about. It is my hope that I am able to bring this into the limelight.”
If elected to the national board, Goodsoldier wants to “help reservation communities develop and sustain local NAMI affiliates.” She says the need for these affiliates is great because of “the lack of behavioral health services in our tribal communities.” Goodsoldier believes NAMI affiliates can fill this gap and provide resources and educational programs for people suffering from mental illness and the family members who help care for them. “I also think it is important for NAMI to understand that traditionally, we, as Native people are holistic in nature and that communal approaches are favored as an approach to intervention, rather than the dyad one-on-one approach of Western therapy,” she says.
Goodsoldier works as a vocational rehabilitation counselor at Mental Health Partners in Boulder, Colorado, is commissioner of the Denver American Indian Commission, and is a cultural competency advisory council for the Colorado Department of Human Services, Division of Behavioral Health. In addition, she currently serves the Colorado state NAMI Board of Directors as a member of the board and is Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council chair for NAMI in the state. The thing that might qualify Goodsoldier for NAMI national board membership more than all her other credentials combined is that she herself has recovered from a mental illness.
“I am an advocate for traditional healing and have personally seen how my own recovery from chronic depression has been attributed to returning to my traditional ways,” she says. “My father in law, a traditional healer on the Pine Ridge reservation once said, ‘Our survival is based on returning to our traditional ways and language.’ I wholeheartedly believe in that.”