Time to Prioritize Indigenous Youth: Mind, Body, Spirit, and Culture

Wednesday, July 8, 2020 - 9:30am

By Cara Popeski, with Francine Gachupin and Noshene Ranjbar

Last summer I was a volunteer counselor for the American Indian Youth Wellness Camp. Led by Dr. Francine Gachupin at the University of Arizona, the camp promotes healthy lifestyle practices for American Indian youth. Native youth have a disproportionately high prevalence of obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. The camp welcomes youth diagnosed with, or at high-risk for, Type 2 diabetes from tribes throughout Arizona. 

The camp has been taking place annually for nearly 30 years, since 1991. It offers basic health screenings, nutrition education, cultural activities, play, and exercise for the youth. It also offers a focus on mental health through mind-body skills training – evidence-based activities including meditation, guided imagery, expression through drawings, movement, music, writing, and biofeedback – all to help address the effects of trauma and chronic stress and to build self-awareness. Youth who have experienced traumatic or stressful life events are more likely than their peers to develop physical conditions such as diabetes and obesity, and psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders, as well as aggressive and/or self-destructive behaviors. American Indian communities experience disproportionately high rates of poverty, violence, abuse, neglect, and suicide. The camp thus serves both mental and physical health needs. 

The focus on mind-body medicine initially drew me to this camp. One of my medical school mentors, Dr. Noshene Ranjbar - UArizona Assistant Psychiatry Professor, had led mind-body skills sessions at the camp for several years, teaching youth to better identify, express, and regulate their emotions through fun, engaging, and reflective activities. In our small-group sessions, youth from each tribe shared their experiences with loss, grief, and trauma, as well as stories of hope, strength and overcoming obstacles. From them, I learned about the intersection of mind, body, spirit, and nature in many of the tribes’ shared beliefs.

Drs. Ranjbar and Gachupin invited me to add a creative writing component to the programming. My sessions included free-writing and writing prompts, including stories about safe spaces, reacting versus responding in situations that evoke difficult emotions, and body positivity. Many participants had difficulty with the body-positivity prompt, saying that it was challenging to think of themselves and their bodies in a positive light. For many, creative writing helped them feel more confident, peaceful, and relaxed. Several said that they would likely continue writing in a journal to calm down when feeling upset or to build confidence. Creative expression can help youth develop a personal sense of competence, confidence, and belonging; boost resilience; and build self-esteem and empowerment.

In 2020, COVID-19 has hit tribal nations brutally, with infection and mortality rates higher than the general population. Current sociodemographic conditions on many reservations underscore the lack of adequate resources to maintain social distancing and prevention practices. Youth are experiencing yet another collective trauma. 

The American Indian Youth Wellness Camp is an example of a program working to engage youth in healthy lifestyle, including mental health, and the inclusion of parents ensures a family-based approach. It provides a holistic approach to wellness where tribal values are included. As a medical student, the opportunity to be involved with the camp program has allowed me to commit to patient care that extends beyond office visits addressing symptoms of illness and a medication prescription. 

Additional funding is always needed to support these initiatives. The time to invest in promoting American Indian youth resilience and enhancing physical and mental health and well-being in their communities is now. For more details about the camp and how to donate, please visit www.fcm.arizona.edu/outreach/american-indian-youth-wellness-initiative or contact Director Dr. Francine Gachupin at 520-621-5072 or fcgachupin@email.arizona.edu.

Cara Popeski is a third-year medical student at University of Arizona College of Medicine and an aspiring integrative psychiatrist who serves on the Wellness Committee for the University of Arizona College of Medicine.