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Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health in American Indian and Alaskan Native Communities: Considerations for Early Childhood Partners and Funders

Ekaterina Zoubak


What key ingredients are needed to effectively promote the mental health and resilience of young children in American Indian and Alaska Native communities? What should non-indigenous allies know when working with Indigenous communities and partners to support young child wellness? What elements and contexts should be taken into consideration when designing and funding such efforts? The following article examines these questions and shares insights and perspectives from those who are working toward better outcomes for young children and families in American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

…before we can presume to know how to help Native communities in culturally appropriate ways, we must first study the cultural underpinnings of wellness from the perspective of contemporary community members (Gone, 2004, p. 14).

A multitude of private and public funding streams such as philanthropy, public dollars, and federal investments exist with an aim to promote optimal young child development. Some of these efforts strive to support tribal systems and effect positive change for American Indian and Alaska Native children. However, these undertakings only partially meet the needs of the vast and diverse Indigenous communities throughout the United States, territories, and jurisdictions. There are also many remarkable Native-led efforts, ranging from Indigenous midwifery, to language revitalization and traditional wellness projects, to Indigenous rights and equity initiatives that are working to address the aftermath of traumatic colonization and assimilation policies, and to foster healthy and thriving communities. In a perfect world, more substantial and sustainable funding streams would exist to support this work in combination with reimbursable services. In the fields of mental health and health policy and innovation, where westernized knowledge, methodology, and interventions dominate, it is necessary to create space for the voices and experiences of racial and ethnic groups whose perspectives are often included as an afterthought. Sharing the decision-making table equitably with communities, scholars, and advocates of color will yield initiatives that are effective, sustainable, and visionary in the long term.

The purpose of this article is to share (a) direct input from three individuals who are supporting infant and early childhood mental health (IECMH) and fostering change for children and families, and (b) recommendations for funders and change agents, both private and public, and those who are working to conceptualize and design efforts for young children in U.S.- based American Indian and Alaska Native communities. The views presented in this article are specific to the individuals interviewed, and do not represent the breadth and diversity of perspective, experience, and cultural variation that permeate Native communities. Yet these recommendations re-affirm the importance of genuinely listening to the experiences, wisdom, and expertise that come from the communities at the receiving end of decisions, policies, and programs.

Several interviews mention Project LAUNCH (Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children’s Health), a federal grant program administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Project LAUNCH aims to foster the healthy development of young children birth through 8 years old, preparing them to thrive in school and beyond. LAUNCH grants are designed to build the capacities of adult caregivers to promote healthy social and emotional development; to prevent mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders; and to identify and address behavioral concerns before they develop into serious emotional disturbances (SAMHSA, 2019). One cohort of the grant program, Indigenous Project LAUNCH, is exclusively made up of grantees who predominantly serve Indigenous populations (tribes within the U.S., tribal organizations, Alaska Native organizations, and U.S. territories). Project LAUNCH is also the unifying context of my professional relationships with the interviewees.

Early childhood programs touch the core of communities. After all, when these programs focus on children, they are aiming to change the trajectories of future generations. When working with multicultural and diverse populations, including Indigenous communities, it is important to explore and understand values related to children, family, and parenting. Making assumptions about family structures, or caregiver and gender roles, may create a disconnect with the community. Hence, all of the interviews collected for this article begin by exploring the community’s values about children, families, and wellness, which is a grounding upon which any and all efforts should rest.

All interviewees responded to the following questions, prompting them to talk about tribal systems throughout the United States, as well as cultural practices and early childhood efforts in their respective Native communities:

  • What are your community’s values about children? Family? Child wellness?
  • What are some compelling examples you have seen in Native communities to promote the emotional well-being of infants and toddlers? How can systems and programs best support resilient communities?
  • For non-Indigenous organizations, allies, or funders, what should we know about Indigenous communities and the way tribal systems operate in order to be more helpful, rather than unhelpful?
  • What are some insights you can share related to long-term system change and shifting tribal systems?

Photo: Kavram/shutterstock

Sharing the decision-making table equitably with communities, scholars, and advocates of color will yield initiatives that are effective, sustainable, and visionary in the long term.

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