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American Indians and Alaska Natives are disproportionately affected by the pandemic


Data shows that American Indians and Alaska Natives are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Concretely, they have higher rates of infection and hospitalizations than white Americans. A recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard Chan School of Public Health suggests that COVID-related challenges affected their mental health more, too. Here's NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: The past 19 months have been stressful on many fronts for Chris Aragon. He lives on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.

CHRIS ARAGON: It's been a little difficult because I'm a caregiver for my disabled brother.

ARAGON: His main goal through the pandemic has been to keep his brother, who has cerebral palsy, safe from the virus. He says while people on the reservation have followed public health guidelines, masking and vaccines have been controversial in the community outside.

ARAGON: We wear our masks, and we were vaccinated, but there's a lot of people up here that are not. And they don't want to be, and they don't want you to be and so are intimidating in certain ways.

CHATTERJEE: Aragon, who's a building contractor, says the pandemic has also been financially difficult. He worked reduced hours last year and has had no work in recent weeks.

ARAGON: So I was stressing about that. I'd wake up at night just to have to go to the restroom, and then I wouldn't be able to go back to sleep.

CHATTERJEE: Aragon is among the 74% of American Indian and Alaska Natives in our poll who said someone in their household has struggled with depression, anxiety, stress and problems with sleeping. That's compared to 52% of whites who said the same. Half of Native Americans also said they're facing serious financial problems, with a quarter saying they've lost all savings during the pandemic. Spero Manson is Pembina Chippewa from North Dakota.

SPERO MANSON: American and Alaska Native communities and our members have been hit quite hard by the pandemic.

CHATTERJEE: Manson directs the University of Colorado's Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health. He says the pandemic has exacerbated longstanding stresses and strains on the lives of Native people due to historic inequities.

MANSON: As we struggle to address the sudden and precipitous added stresses posed by the pandemic, it heightens that sense of pain, suffering, of helplessness and hopelessness.

CHATTERJEE: He says it's manifesting in higher rates of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and things have been worsened by the need to isolate from one another.

MANSON: American Alaska Native people - we are very social and collective in our understanding of who we are, how we reaffirm this sense of personhood and self.

CHATTERJEE: Not being able to gather for powwows and other cultural ceremonies has been especially hard, with so many people dealing with grief.

VICTORIA O'KEEFE: Individual or family and collective grief, especially grief around losing elders and cultural keepers.

CHATTERJEE: Psychologist Victoria O'Keefe is a member of the Cherokee and Seminole Nations.

O'KEEFE: We know it's taking a toll on mental health, emotional health and spiritual health.

CHATTERJEE: O'Keefe is at the Center for American Indian Health at Johns Hopkins University. She says a sense of cultural identity and collective responsibility has also motivated communities.

O'KEEFE: We really see so many communities mobilizing and are really determined to protect each other.

CHATTERJEE: That was the case in Navajo Nation, says her colleague Joshuaa Allison-Burbank.

JOSHUAA ALLISON-BURBANK: This concept of hashk'e (ph) in Navajo - it means family, kinship, ties.

CHATTERJEE: He's a member of the Navajo Nation, and he spent the early months of the pandemic working on the frontlines at a COVID care clinic with the Indian Health Services in Shiprock, N.M. He says people were quick to start masking and social distancing.

ALLISON-BURBANK: That's what was so important for getting a grasp and controlling viral spread across the Navajo Nation. It was going back to this concept of respect to other humans, respect to elders. It's also the concept of taking care of one another, taking care of the land.

CHATTERJEE: And it helped communities find creative solutions to other pandemic-related crises like food shortages. Many people, including his own family, started farming and cooking traditional crops like corn and squash, which they previously ate only during traditional ceremonies.

ALLISON-BURBANK: My whole family - we were able to farm traditional pueblo foods and Navajo crops as well and not just have enough for ourselves, but we had an abundance to be able to share with our extended family, our neighbors and to contribute to various mutual aid organizations.

CHATTERJEE: He says farming also allowed community members to spend more time together safely, which helped buffer some of the stress. Victoria O'Keefe says people have also been more willing to get vaccinated to protect their communities.

O'KEEFE: American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest rates of receiving COVID-19 vaccines compared to other racial and ethnic groups in the United States.

CHATTERJEE: According to the CDC, half of all American Indian and Alaska Native people have been fully vaccinated. That's compared to only 41% of all whites. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRAY FOR SOUND'S "SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.