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Two Americas: Native American lessons in understanding mental health

Posted at 5:58 PM, Nov 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-29 23:47:51-05

LOGAN, Utah — Erica Ficklin's story is distinctly American — and Native American.

“I'm very proud of who I am,” Ficklin said of her heritage.

She grew up in Alabama, geographically distant from her native roots. Her mother both Oglala Lakota and Tlingit by birth, her father white. Now, Ficklin lives in Utah where she’s a Ph.D. student in psychology at Utah State University.

“The program has a very long history of working with native psychology,” she said.

For her master's thesis, Ficklin invited indigenous people into gatherings called "sharing circles" to hear their perspectives on mental health disabilities.

Sharing circles are gatherings in which participants sit in a circle facing each other to have a conversation.

Ficklin says the circles are more comfortable within most native cultures, many of which have a tradition of “talking circles.” In Ficklin’s words, the circle “sends a message that we’re all equals.”

Ficklin focused exclusively on Native Americans who live in Utah, most from tribes calling Utah home, and some who reside in Utah with other tribal membership. The meetings were held in Logan, Salt Lake, Roosevelt and Blanding.

Though Native cultures differ in many ways, Ficklin did find common themes in the feedback she received in the circles.

“People shared a lot about bullying that their family members with disabilities have experienced,” she said. “A lot of that bullying could be connected to discrimination — either for having a disability or being native or both.”

Commonly in the conversations, the Native participants expressed a view of disabilities as an invitation and a blessing.

The blessing is offered by the person with the disability.

“It was an indicator that they had something to share with the world,” Ficklin said.

The invitation is to the broader community, to discover the nature of the blessing.

“The community kind of looks at that person and says they're here for a reason. They're going to share something with us that's important, and we need to listen to that person,” Ficklin said.