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The Indian Health Service Highlights Red Ribbon Week

by Jessica Larson, Public Health Advisor, Youth Programing, Division of Behavioral Health, Indian Health Service

The annual Red Ribbon Campaign takes place on October 23-31, honoring the commitment of many to raise awareness of the destruction drugs have on American communities. It exists to encourage communities to mobilize, educate youth, and encourage participation in drug prevention activities. Since 1985, the red ribbon has been a symbol of grassroots efforts to nurture the full potential of healthy, drug free youth.

This year’s theme is “Be Kind to Your Mind. Live Drug Free.” This theme highlights the impact that substance use can have on brain development. Drug use can be especially harsh on the developing brain of youth. As Indigenous people, each new generation has a responsibility as the next culture bearers. How can our youth accept this responsibility, unless they have been kind to their mind? How can our youth serve the next seven generations by living drug free?

The documented rates of alcohol and substance use among American Indians and Alaska Natives, when compared to other ethnicities, are alarming, and the causes of this disparity are complex. Recent data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration indicate that roughly 17% of Native people ages 12 years or older have experienced substance use disorder in the past year and 15.6% of the same group have experienced alcohol use disorder in the past year. SAMHSA has also identified several barriers to youth treatment, including transportation issues, insufficient insurance coverage, poverty, and a shortage of community treatment options.

The Indian Health Service recognizes the importance of prevention. The IHS acknowledges that Indigenous youth are more likely to have been exposed to alcohol and drug use when compared to other groups of young people, and that the relationship Indigenous people have with substance use can be complex and traumatic. However, studies show that for Indigenous youth, cultural connection and engagement is one of the strongest protective factors against substance use. In addition to a full spectrum of substance use disorder treatment, IHS supports a number of prevention initiatives with a framework acknowledging that culture is prevention.

The IHS is proud to support innovative practices in our behavioral health continuum. For example, the Strengthening Families Program helps families learn nurturing, supportive skills, teaches parents and caregivers how to discipline and guide their youth effectively, and teaches youth skills for dealing with stress and peer pressure. Participants in the program include parents and youth between the ages of 10 and 14, and it helps to address youth risk factors such as aggressive behavior, withdrawn behavior, poor relationships with parents, and negative peer influence. This is in addition to fostering protective factors, such as positive future orientation, positive management of emotions, and empathy with parents. Another example is the Multi-Dimensional Family Therapy model that aims to engage parents and youth in therapy both separately and together, and consider their roles within their family unit. This therapy aims to improve self-awareness, self-worth, and confidence among youth, while improving parenting skills, family communication, and problem-solving skills. In a community sense, this therapy aims to improve family members’ relationships with schools and other neighborhood social systems, and build access to needed resources.

The IHS is proud to support a broad continuum of care for substance abuse that envelops prevention, intervention, aftercare, and community engagement.

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Jessica Larson, Public Health Advisor, Youth Programing, Division of Behavioral Health, Indian Health Service

Jessica Larson (Tlingit) of the Organized Village of Kake is detailed as the public health advisor focusing on youth programming within the IHS Division of Behavioral Health, Office of Clinical and Preventive Services. Prior to her current position, she worked at the University of Maryland and U.S. Department of Agriculture in research administration and support. Jessica joined IHS in 2021, and has a master's of public policy from the University of Maryland.