The largest umbrella group for America’s psychologists weighed in on an unlikely issue this week: construction of an oil pipeline in the upper Midwest.
In a strongly worded statement, the American Psychological Association condemned President Trump’s decision to move forward with construction of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline that would run past a Native American reservation.
Former president Barack Obama halted the project over serious environmental and cultural concerns raised by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe that the pipeline would damage their water supplies and unsettle sacred burial grounds. The decision in December was viewed as a major victory for indigenous people who for centuries have felt marginalized and ignored by the U.S. government.
Which is exactly why Trump’s reversal is so potentially damaging for their emotional well-being, the APA said.
“Given our skills as psychologists, we stand ready to participate in constructive problem resolution, as well as provide support for those who were and remain in harm’s way — physically, psychologically and spiritually,” APA President Antonio E. Puente said. “We ask that the new administration not repeat the mistakes of the past, and that it respect the sovereignty, welfare and culture of our native peoples.”
Native Americans have greater psychological distress and higher suicide rates than other racial groups in America, data has shown. They’re prone to mental and behavioral health issues, ranging from post traumatic stress disorder to depression to substance abuse. One reason for this, research suggests, is historical trauma ingrained in their culture since Europeans began taking over their land and killing their people more than 500 years ago. The resulting low socio-economic status coupled with feelings of lost identity creates a hopelessness passed on through generations, said Teresa LaFromboise, a Stanford University psychologist who studies American Indian adolescent suicide prevention.
It was LaFromboise who made Puente aware of the immense emotional stress this population endures and how having what is most important to them ignored by both the public and private sectors is retraumatizing. So while environmental issues are somewhat out of APA’s purview, Puente was moved to weigh in because of the mental health impacts.
In the past, the APA has taken positions on other divisive political issues pertaining to specific groups. For instance, in June 2016, it released a statement commending the Supreme Court for upholding race-based college admissions, saying when minority students are underrepresented it can cause psychological suffering. It also weighed in on the psychological stress on protesters in Ferguson after the shooting death of black teen Michael Brown, and on immigrant children when their parents are at risk of deportation.
“Our job is to understand and to serve the society we live in and in doing so we’re particularly concerned about individuals historically marginalized or effected by behaviors that may have been intended or not intended,” he said in an interview. “If we understand there’s a group that has suffered greatly, it’s our job to bring forth that data. [We care about] the welfare of a nation’s soul, if this is all about economics and we’ve lost our soul, we’ve lost our nation.”
At the Standing Rock camp where tribal members and other protesters gathered to resist the pipeline, Johnnie Aseron set up one of several wellness centers in part to address some of these stresses that were further exacerbated, he said, by the militarization of the National Guard watching them at all times. They held sessions in the morning and the evening to provide a space for people to come together to share how they were feeling.
“If you’re a little kid and every day your parents ignore you, every day they pass you by, they heap injury upon you, what happens to you, what do you start believing about yourself?” Aseron said. “The most unfortunate thing is [Trump’s decision] confirms it over and over again that it’s an inequitable space, it’s an inequitable manner of what our future is. We don’t get a choice.”
Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, who lived for months at the Standing Rock camp set up by protesters to resist the pipeline, agreed. Native Americans have internalized the oppression of having their land taken by the federal government, so Trump’s announcement — one made with no consultation with the tribal leaders — just reinforces it, he said.
“Why don’t they respect us? Even our children learn this and it does bear psychologically and socially on our people,” he said.
But LaFromboise suggested that while the trauma of being treated as less than is real, there is a positive way of looking at how the tribal members have responded to the pipeline project.
“This resistance is empowering and can be a form of mental health,” she said. “Rather than just rolling over and saying just treat us like we always are treated, we’re talking about people who are fighting this, who are standing up to this, and saying, you’re not treating us in a respectful way.”
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