Good COVID-19 medicine: Gratitude

Patty Talahongva

Even our traditional healers are well aware of the science behind the pandemic

When it comes to the health of men, where do Native men stand? 

Men in general are known to be reluctant in getting yearly checkups and general overall preventive care. The overall health of Native Americans is bleak. So how can you make sure the men in your family are taking care of their health?

Dr. Don Warne is the associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion as well as the director of Indians into Medicine program at the University of North Dakota. He was raised in a traditional Lakota family and brings his cultural teachings of the Medicine Wheel into his medical profession.

Here are some of his comments: 

"One of our big challenges is that the baseline level of health was already poor for American Indians, generally speaking but in particularly for American Indian men. So when you have a baseline low level of health, adding something like a pandemic can make things much worse."

"For men the suicide rates are even higher than for women. So we already have a terrible disparity with mental health for American Indians but American Indian men even worse. Unfortunately."

"So when you have something like a pandemic where we are calling for things like social isolation or social distancing, that's actually not good for mental health. So I really prefer the term physical distancing rather than social distancing, because we actually need to have social connectedness in order to maintain health."

"If we're feeling socially isolated, it could make people who are already feeling depression or suffering from addiction that can make those problems even worse. We're seeing in the field anecdotal reports that things are worsening on those fronts. Of course, once we have more time to collect data, I think we're going to see a spike in some of the mental health concerns, not just the physical health related to the pandemic." 

"In the Northern Plains, we looked at the Dakotas and for men, we have higher rates of deaths due to unintentional injury but also due to intentional injury. So higher rates of deaths due to suicide and homicide, as well as the unintentional injuries and accidents. In addition to that, we have higher rates of death due to diabetes."

"One of the challenges there is that quite often, if we're not getting preventive care and not screening for things like diabetes, quite often, we're diagnosing the disease relatively late into the process."

"Ideally we'd be addressing these things long before the pandemic. And of course we're not in an ideal setting. And I've heard a lot of people saying, 'When are we going to get back to normal?' And in truth, I hope we don't get back to normal. Normal is not good enough for us. We need to get back to better."

"Maybe the pandemic can shine a bright light on some of the challenges that we're facing. And perhaps we can recognize that we need a better baseline level of health so we can absorb these types of challenges. We need to promote more health resilience among our people but when we're facing high levels of poverty, other social determinants of health, a lot of unresolved trauma and other factors that lead to poor mental health and poor physical health, the pandemic is really a difficult time to try to fix those things because we're facing other challenges."

"The strengths of our traditional approaches for many tribes is that we did have a much more inclusive concept of what is family. And I know just in my own background, that what I was taught is that traditionally we didn't have the idea of a nuclear family. And it's an interesting term as a nuclear family, where we just have a mom and dad and children."

"Actually in the old way, it was the responsibility of one generation to raise the next generation. So I have just as much responsibility for my nephew as I do for my son. And a lot of our tribal cultures have very similar perspectives and that inclusive, a wider ranging perspective of family. So I wish we could go back to that in many ways. I think it's a healthier approach. And within that, we need to be supportive of each other."

"For a lot of our cultures, men's roles were being protectors, but in truth a lot of our men are vulnerable or at-risk right now because of poor health status. So we need to be strong for each other and recognize that it's not just about the nuclear family. We need to look at our communities as our families and be supportive of each other as much as we can."

"Hopefully we'll get through the pandemic in relatively good-shape so we can now fix our public health infrastructure but also strengthen our communities and help support those social determinants of health in a positive way."

"As people come together, if there are people that are not within your household, you need to maintain that six feet of physical-distancing and the mask isn't necessarily to protect yourself from getting COVID, if you might have it, you're protecting others. So in truth, it's a way to show support for our community members and our family members by wearing a mask, some sort of good-facial covering if you happen to be coughing or sneezing, you're not going to spread the virus."

"Wearing a mask really as a sign of respect for other people that you're not going to be spreading it to them. And again, if you're coming into contact with people outside of your household, it's very important to maintain that physical-distancing."

"And we've even seen our traditional healers take dramatic steps. We've had ceremonies like Sundance canceled this year because they recognize that many people who come to the ceremonies are coming there for healing, and they might already be at physical-risk anyway, we have a lot of people going through recovery that attend Sundance to have support and to have prayers or we have people who might have diabetes or in very high-risk for bad outcomes."

"We've taken tremendous steps as traditional leaders in many of our tribes to postpone or cancel very meaningful ceremonies, even as we know, powwows are canceled. So let's not waste that effort by having our families and groups come together in big groups and spread it anyway, because even our traditional healers are well aware of the science behind this. And we need to be respectful of that and not spread the disease to other people. Our communities are very vulnerable right now."

"In my own experiences, very fortunate to grow up in a family with a lot of medicine men and traditional healers. And that way of life is so meaningful to me. So that was incorporated into my own medical training. So when I think about the traditional perspective of health, we have to look at things not just in the physical arena but also spiritual health, mental health, emotional health."

"In my own experience what's been very effective is to blend traditional medicine and modern science and they can be brought together. Ironically, the traditional ways are much bigger. They transcend just physical medicine. 

So historically I've been asked many times, 'how do you incorporate traditional medicine into your modern practice?' so then I say, 'I don't. I incorporate modern medicine into my traditional practice because the traditional practice is much bigger.' Physical healing is important in traditional medicine as well but we don't just take it apart from spiritual health, mental health and emotional health."

"I think we have enough empirical evidence that expecting the federal government to solve our health problems is not going to work. We need to manage that. We need to control that. And as indigenous peoples, we've had self governance for millennia and to expect a federal agency to fix our health challenges is just not going to be effective."

"What I was taught is that we need to be grateful and have prayer every day and that's just incorporated into my usual routine, my family's routine. I'm very blessed to have a wonderful wife and children who are growing up really well connected to our traditions and our beliefs and not just from a belief system but actually a practice in the way that we live.

"What's fascinating is that now in modern medical science, we're starting to realize that you can actually improve health by focusing on gratitude. There's actually very good research that shows what we are conscious of. What we really think about has an impact on our physiology. And we kind of know this. If we get angry, we can feel our heart racing or blood pressure go up. When we feel gratitude, we can have the sense of calm and wellness. We can have an impact on blood pressure and blood sugar. So science is finally catching up to what our indigenous healers to always known."

"When I see a terminology in the medical science saying, 'We should have, every day, we should be conscious of what we're grateful for.' Well, to me that sounds like morning prayer. You know what I mean? This is what we've been practicing for a thousand years. And, now modern medical science is finally catching up to that knowledge. 

And it's so effective that, you know, if it was in the form of a pill it would be standard medical practice but because it's in the form of gratitude, acknowledgement, and prayer, it's alternative medicine, right. But it's just as effective. And these are things that I know from a cultural perspective but it's also things that I know from a scientific perspective and that's what we need to build out."

Also in the newscast, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye has the latest numbers of positive COVID-19 tests in Indian Country.

The anchor and executive producer of the newscast is Patty Talahongva.

 

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