According to a study by the MU School of Medicine, Indigenous youth and young adults in the United States have more mental and physical health problems than non-Indigenous groups.
Researchers at the School of Medicine have found that such health disparities can be mitigated by strengthening the cultural connections of these young people.
Melissa Lewis, lead researcher and assistant professor of family and community medicine, said pre-settlement Indigenous peoples were free to practice their way of life through food, exercise and community connections. However, indigenous peoples today face the reality of discrimination and prejudice, preventing them from practicing their traditional ways of life, she said.
Lewis’ team examined a group of 30 participants from Remember the Removal, a program launched in 1984 to connect Cherokee youth to their culture, language, history and values, according to a statement from the MU News Bureau.
Remember the abduction ends with a 1,000-mile bike ride that follows the route native tribes traveled in the 1830s when the U.S. government drove them from their land. The program lasts about five months and the bike ride lasts about three weeks, Lewis said.
The team of researchers collected data on the physical, mental and socio-cultural health of the Cherokee youth, the release said, and Lewis said they used a tribal participatory research model, working closely with several staff members. , participants and alumni of the program to discuss how they wanted to disseminate the results.
Lewis and his researchers asked participants to complete surveys regarding their health status before the program began, immediately after the bike ride, and six months after the program ended.
“Results from the program’s focus groups showed that participants felt more confident, better informed, healthier and more involved in their tribal community,” Lewis said.
Participants expressed decreased levels of anger, stress, anxiety, PTSD, depression and micro-aggression, according to the statement. Surveys revealed an overall improvement in mental health and stronger connections to their Cherokee identity and culture.
Although there was no increase in physical behaviors after the training period, the overall results suggest long-term beneficial effects of program participation.
“This evidence shows that it is time to elevate Indigenous knowledge and principles of health and wellness in health care delivery,” Lewis said in the press release. “This study adds to the body of research that supports culture as an essential component of positive health and well-being in Indigenous communities.
The findings by Lewis and his colleagues were published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, which is supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health, according to the statement. Lewis said their results could be shared with North Carolina, Illinois and even New Zealand.
“The lifestyles of Indigenous communities have been developed over thousands of years, resulting in complex and specific ways of being related to positive health well-being for individuals, communities and the earth,” Lewis said. “Returning to these lifestyles is linked to improved physical, mental and emotional health.”