Even before COVID-19, far too many Cherokees and others in our communities struggled with addiction. The increased stress and anxiety of the past year tragically has made that struggle harder for many. As we continue the fight against the global pandemic, we must stay focused on the ongoing needs in mental and behavioral health, as well as concentrate on northeast Oklahoma’s addiction epidemic.
To better address these issues, Cherokee Nation is investing $9-12 million annually in addiction treatment and wellness centers throughout our reservation. A portion of the revenue generated by Cherokee Nation Health Services will be earmarked annually under the Cherokee Nation Public Health and Wellness Fund Act. These revenues will go to building, maintaining and operating new wellness centers and expanded programs. This represents the largest annual increase in such tribally funded programs in Cherokee history.
Sadly, there will be an ongoing need to fight substance misuse and addiction long after the COVID-19 emergency is behind us. With the establishment of treatment sites and a permanent funding source, we will be able to offer the proven continuum of care model, combining many disciplines and different forms of help to make sure patients do not slip through the cracks. Individuals seeking sobriety and mental health assistance will also have access to essential tools for supporting whole families and building resilience.
Mental and behavioral health care is essential health care in the Cherokee Nation. Our team of behavioral and public health professionals already do a tremendous job of caring for Cherokee Nation citizens. They provide services including suicide prevention, opioid and substance misuse counseling and intervention, and strong public health policy development. With this additional funding, we now have an opportunity to make generational improvements in behavioral care.
Rural communities typically have the least access to mental health care, making it especially important to build more places for care across our reservation. We will be creating campus-like spaces that are tailored to Cherokee patients’ needs — places where they can feel safe and supported through their healing process. Through our growing telehealth capabilities, we will also expand outpatient services to help patients after they return home.
Because our approach to health care is to treat the body and mind, physical wellness is also a key component of the Health and Wellness Fund. So, in the coming years we will focus more on prevention through physical fitness and nutrition programs. More often than not, mental health problems are accompanied by, or even made more severe by, other ailments. Quite simply, we believe health care should treat the whole person. This historic investment will help us achieve a more holistic approach to health care.
When I took office, our First Lady January Hoskin reminded me that every one of us is vulnerable to mental health issues, are impacted in some way by substance abuse and that Cherokee Nation should do more to help. Over a lifetime, a mental health crisis is almost certain to affect us or someone we love. Drug abuse impacts all of us. These issues should not have a stigma. Instead, as my wife told me, we should always ask, “How can we help?” As Cherokee Nation takes a big step forward in providing that help, I hope other health care partners in Oklahoma follow suit.
Chuck Hoskin Jr.