The American Indian Student Leadership (AISL) club at Salt Lake Community College held a panel discussion on the untold truth about Native American health on Dec. 3.
The panel participated in a Q&A covering a range of topics, including mental health, underlying health diseases and how COVID-19 affected tribal communities due to a lack of resources and medical care.
“One student that I worked with on a daily basis – their parents contracted [COVID-19] and the nearest hospital was a Life Flight to Salt Lake City,” said Dr. Franci Taylor, director of the American Indian Resource Center at the University of Utah. “The ruralness and the distance between here and adequate interventions like a ventilator is extreme in Indian country, and is something that definitely impacted the death rates in our communities.”
These communities had to find ways to combat the health problems that come with contracting COVID-19, along with the health conditions already present in the population according to Kolenya Dempsey, program coordinator at Southern Utah University for rural health.
“It impacted every single individual, at least where I was from,” Dempsey said. “Many of our community members on the reservation are not only battling COVID, but also dealing with comorbidity diseases such as diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, kidney disease and liver disease. Having that combination and dealing with COVID respiratory failure is something that contributed to the mortality rates.”
The stressors of handling diseases along with COVID-19 impacted the mental health of these communities, but it also brought the members together according to Dempsey.
“Coming from a rural area, I take pride that rural communities are very resourceful and value kinship,” Dempsey said. “The good side of the pandemic is that it made the community stronger in collaborating and finding a creative way to battle this pandemic.”
The last question posed to the panel asked how non-Native allies can support a safe space for change.
“One of the biggest things an ally can do to help is to listen to understand and also educate themselves on issues within Indian country and take the initiative to understand some of the issues that affect their native peers,” said Allyson Shaw, a therapist at The Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake City and Red Mesa Behavior Health.
Jeremy Taylor, health program manager of the American Indian/Alaska Native Health Affairs Office at the Utah Department of Health, offered some basic suggestions.
“Allies can combat the words they use on a daily basis to address people. Even the terms someone wants to go by. Asking people what they want to be called is a critical and easy first step for allies and combatting some of those dehumanizing terms overall,” Taylor said. “Support, not just in November but in all 365 days of the year, is a nice way allies can help.”
An overall answer from all the panelists was accountability.
“It’s great to say you’re supportive,” Taylor said. “It’s wonderful to offer land acknowledgment, but at the end of the day, institutions, departments, colleges have to show that they are committed to equality for native students.”