Tlingit and Haida Tackle Mental Health and Wellness with New Division


Tlingit and Haida President Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson in her office. (Claire Stremple / KTOO)

The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes already offers some social services, but it is ready to expand. She launched a community and behavioral health division this spring. The movement marks a shift towards stronger tribal support for well-being.

Tlingit and Haida President Chayee Éesh Richard Peterson said COVID-19 was the catalyst for the creation of a welfare division which was encouraged by the tribal delegation – this is the legislative branch of the government – for years.

He said there had been a reluctance to step into the wellness role because the Southeast Regional Health Consortium and other medical providers already offer these services. But he says the demand is so great that everyone has to work together.

“For me, I’m not that worried about stepping on my toes, walking away, stepping on my own – we’ll find out. What we need to do is get started. We have to do this job, ”he said.

Peterson says generational traumas – of colonization, residential schools and forced assimilation – underlie mental health and addiction issues.

“This scar, this wound, this trauma is spreading, you know, and you don’t even necessarily understand why. But it’s surfacing, and we want to take a more direct approach to working and providing the service to our citizens so that we can be the helping hand, you know, we can be there, ”Peterson said.

The new division will offer programs aimed at prevention, treatment and recovery, as well as providing regular mental health care to tribal citizens. The objective is to create a system of “enveloping services”.

The tribe hired Dr. Tina Woods to lead the new division. She is a registered clinical psychologist from St. Paul’s Island. She supported the administration with classes in personal care and mental wellness during the pandemic.

“I am a Western psychologist by training. However, I was also trained by Native Alaskan Elders across the state. And for me, there is nothing more powerful than blending two worlds to provide the highest quality service to our tribal citizens, ”said Woods.

Woods received his masters and doctorates from the University of Alaska at Anchorage and Fairbanks. Most of Woods’ career has been spent in the Alaskan Tribal Health System, both in clinical practice and administration. Her studies and work focus on rural and indigenous settings. She will lead the tribe’s existing programs, but also expand the type of care tribe members receive.

Woods says one of his main goals is to break the stigma surrounding mental health issues and drug use so people will seek help. And she says that while the pandemic has caused an increase in cases of anxiety, depression and stress, it is that same increase that has helped normalize the problems.

“While we’ve all been through this shared trauma of dealing with high stress in unfamiliar and unpredictable times, we can share this together and understand what anxiety really is. The grief is huge right now, ”she said. “The pandemic has created a lot of heartache in many ways. It took away our norm.

Peterson says Dr. Woods’ clinical credentials speak for themselves, and he knows her interest in cultivation as a healer will keep the tribe moving in the right direction.

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