In observation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day this month, the Service Members, Veterans, and their Families (SMVF) Technical Assistance (TA) Center invited Barbara Aragon with the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) Tribal Training and TA Center to share her perspective and raise awareness of the behavioral health challenges within many American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) populations. She draws from over 40 years of experience working in Native communities and has been working on suicide prevention and postvention in Native communities for the last 9 years. Ms. Aragon is of Laguna Pueblo, Crow, and French-Canadian heritage. Below she highlights the importance of storytelling in the healing process, notes a handful of mindfulness practices for those experiencing isolation, and provides advice on how to better support AI/AN communities.

In your work with Native communities, you emphasize the power of storytelling in healing. What have you learned, and what has stood out to you over the past few years of the COVID-19 pandemic?

“If you cannot tell your story, you cannot see your story, and if you cannot see your story (and its patterns), you cannot change your story.” Chumash Psychologist Art Martinez once made this statement, and it is foundational to the healing power of storytelling. Often people cannot tell their story because of the trauma they experienced related to the event. But if you create a safe, non-judgmental space, healing energy is created. You will find stories prime other stories, whether told in the Sweat Lodge, in a 12-step meeting, or in a digital storytelling workshop. Safety and consistency are key.

I often tell traditional Indigenous stories, where the protagonists are animals and tricksters. I lead processing with prompting questions that harvest deep themes. Using the traditional stories creates an innate sense of safety for the audience. Personally, one of the most revealing and healing stories for me was Homer’s The Odyssey. At first, I was frustrated by Odysseus, wondering why he was waylaid and distracted on his return from Troy to home and family. It was only when my loved one came home from Iraq and was unable to return emotionally as the same person who left that I understood Odysseus and had some compassion for him and myself.

We don’t dig deep enough into the powerful teachings of stories.

As we tackle the complex problems of substance use disorders, particularly around opioids, and suicide among AI/AN communities, how would you encourage those in the direct care workforce who may be experiencing compassion fatigue and burnout?

Providers of care must embrace compassion for self. We can forget that we have experienced everything our clients and customers have over the past 2 years—the isolation, fears, anxiety, and grief. We, too, may have lost loved ones and experienced COVID-19. Our degrees and titles did not immunize us from the trauma our society has endured. The increase in substance use disorders, particularly opioids, and suicides has made it particularly challenging as individuals try to cope with the overwhelm. As providers, it is time to walk our talk—seek mental health services, participate in support groups (there are so many virtual groups that allow for anonymity), and develop a practice that works for them. Whether it is a mindfulness practice, running, art, or a cultural practice, each provides a sense of connection and belonging to combat the sense of isolation. During the pandemic, I saw an increase in people embracing the traditional Indigenous practices that were mindful, i.e., weaving, beading, singing, and running. I was honored to be able to facilitate a number of virtual digital storytelling workshops with Native Veterans, which allowed us to meet online and each create stories of remembrance and healing.

The SMVF TA Center helps states, territories, and communities strengthen their behavioral health systems serving SMVF. What advice would you give to planning teams that may be considering strategies to support the mental health and well-being of AI/AN Veterans?

Educate yourself regarding the history of service among AI/AN people. Find out who the Indigenous people are whose land you live and work. You are on Indigenous land even if you are not near a reservation and live in an urban area. Where I live in Sacramento, an urban area, I know I am living on the traditional lands of the Nisenan, and there are countless small bands in the surrounding area.

Also, learn the challenges and barriers for AI/AN Veteran’s experience in utilizing Veterans’ services. Often there are geographic challenges, and you will have to go to their communities. Find out if there are Veterans or traditional warrior societies and ask how you can support their activities and ceremonies. There are often Veterans and tribal leaders who have started informal services to assist their tribal Veterans. Be prepared to be “scolded” for not being available closer to AI/AN Veterans, acknowledge the challenges, and be ready to brainstorm ways to address those challenges.

Visit SAMHSA’s Tribal Training and TA Center for more information. For TA inquiries related to supporting the behavioral health of special population service members and Veterans, please email

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