Patient Care

Toxic Stress Takes a Toll on Native Children

Native Health News report shows Native children are “particularly hard-hit” when it comes to managing high stress situations and having access to treatment.


Chronic poverty, long-term unemployment, substance abuse, and other adult problems can have drastic effects on children. Unrelenting stress—“toxic stress”—can disrupt early brain development, impair immune functioning, and set the stage for later alcoholism, depression, heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions.

Native American children are “particularly hard-hit by this health issue,” says a report in Native Health News . “Minimal parenting skills” and a lack of understanding about child development are risk factors. Moreover, parents may expect their children to be able to understand or cope with conflict or abuse—situations that are well beyond a child’s ability to process.

Related: IHS Funds Programs to Protect Native Youth from Substance Abuse

The health care delivery system in Indian Country “often falls short,” the article says. It cites a case described by Dr. Anitra Warrior, a mental health counselor with Many Nations Healing Counseling Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. She says 1 youth who was being sexually abused and who appeared suicidal was told the next appointment with a behavioral health provider was in 3 weeks.

But, like health care providers everywhere, Native health care providers are learning how to provide better care for children’s issues related to ongoing stress. In the article, Kerry Hawk Lessard, an applied medical anthropologist, executive director of Native American Lifelines, a Title V Indian Health Service Urban Indian Health program facility in Baltimore, says, “I see kids who don’t know any other way than aging out of welfare and applying for disability, because there has never been anyone in these families who have been employed. It limits their potential, their world is 1-dimensional.”

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Lessard’s program pairs at-risk youth with “functional, productive adults” from American Indian communities who provide positive cultural experiences and stimulate “retribalization,” Lessard says.

Warrior’s program in Nebraska targets reducing stress in children with help not typically offered by behavioral health clinics: paying for transportation, food, legal fees. “As we treat the individual, we cannot lose sight of the family or the community and the health of each.”

“When appropriate,” she adds, “cultural practices are vital components to treatment.” For instance, 1 child with a history of severe trauma would call his spirit when he experienced anxiety, she says. Using the child’s culture to deal with the anxiety proved the most effective approach. “Culture and the strength in those beliefs are essential to healing for our young relatives.”

Related: SAMHSA Awards Funds for Tribal Youth Programs

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