TAHLEQUAH , Oklahoma – United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians tribal members gained access to several health services centered on overcoming addiction and mental health struggles with the tribe’s new pilot project, the UKB Opioid Healing Project.
“We call this the UKB Opioid Healing Project to highlight how we can heal, versus viewing addiction and abuse as a sole pathological or neuro-chemical addiction and abuse pattern,” said Dr. Steven Byers, project coordinator.
Byers, an Oklahoma native, is currently an associate professor of psychology at Northeastern State University’s Broken Arrow campus.
He received a doctorate degree from the University of Colorado and has previous experience running an Indian Health Care agency, with a strong focus on Native American psychological research.
He said he was drawn to the opioid project to help northeastern Oklahoma’s Native communities, and specifically Keetoowahs, after frequently hearing about opioid struggles affecting tribal members.
“I kept hearing about drug and opioid issues. From the research on Indigenous mental health, it is clear there is a problem,” Byers said. “Our services are designed to help with all cycles of addiction, from slipping into abuse, from use behaviors to the latter stages of addiction.”
Common opioids include prescription pain relievers such as fentanyl, tramadol, oxycodone and hydrocodone. Illegal substances including heroin also contribute to the increase in deaths by opioids.
“The problem in Indian Country, and the U.S. in general, is that many use synthetic opioids to control pain. Synthetic opioids used for pain relief replace naturally occurring opioids in the body, which often tricks our systems into needing the synthetic drug. That’s the problem here, taking a drug that mimics our natural system and that comes with various side effects that can wreck lives,” said Byers.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 130 people in the U.S. die every day due to overdosing on opioids. Common opioids include prescription pain relievers such as fentanyl, tramadol, oxycodone and hydrocodone.
The project will tackle addiction issues by employing a mental health counselor and a mental health case manager, servicing upwards of eight to 10 Keetoowahs directly at any given time.
To qualify for the program, staff will complete intakes for Keetoowahs struggling with addiction or mental health issues. Individuals that have Keetoowah family members struggling can also reach out to the project.
It hopes to reach 60 Keetoowahs by the end of its second year, while also offering case management referrals as needed.
Patient assessments will be made at the end of every session.
Byers emphasized that the length of the project for each patient will be based on an individual timetable.
He also said there could be the potential of patient carry over into new phases of treatment if staff decides to make such a recommendation, but he also hopes new patients can be introduced into the program every “six to 10 weeks.”
All services will be rooted in the Keetoowah culture in the hopes that the program can achieve a higher rate of success.
“For sure there are neurochemical dimensions to opioid problems, but what we are doing with our Healing Project is assessing culture loss, how Keetoowahs can draw from their culture and regain meaning to address addiction and mental health problems,” said Byers.
“This program was not designed to focus only on the biological or bodily aspects of the problem. This is holistic problem with specialized services and providers to support and empower all aspects of Keetoowah clients, from spiritual to behavioral, from biological to cultural.”
Through both his professional and personal experience, Byers said he has seen what he calls a “Eurocentric” approach to treating Native American patients, which often doesn’t connect with their cultural values.
“I have always pointed out how mainstream treatments and studies on mental health and drug problems are rarely driven by culture and diversity,” he said. “Instead we apply what I call “Eurocentric” treatment based on studies derived from European mental health problems, psychology and services. Often this not only fails to help, but can miss the importance of culture and culture loss.”
Byers said the components that make up the UKB Opioid Healing Project make it truly unique in Indian Country.
“I cannot stress the lack of research there is to guide services for all Indigenous people involved in a struggle with opioids,” he said.
“This program has never been attempted in Indian Country to my knowledge, to work on training and services that emphasize what the research points to including historical trauma, oppression psychology and cultural resiliency, along with a grass roots service program.
“To then evaluate it long term means that Keetoowahs become a central focus in treatment and a beacon of tribal treatment that puts Natives in the driver’s seat to expand and seek healing of mind, body and spirit,” he said.
The project is funded through a grant with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and will last approximately two years.
“What we hope to do is effectively stop and address, not just struggles with opioids in the Keetoowah community, but to provide an awareness of cycles that lead to addiction and where culture and community can help us find meaning and pride. We hope to find out just what works and what can be omitted in future programs for Keetoowahs and Indigenous persons and groups nationwide,” said Byers.
For now though, Byers and his team are focused on one patient at a time.
“Those who know the nature of Indigenous struggles often point out that some of our problems are based on historical trauma, transgenerational issues that come from being a part of American society,” he said.
“What we emphasize is facing these realities one client at a time and transcending them through a culturally-based program. This is an exciting and promising project.”
Britney Bennett is editor of Giduwa Cherokee News, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee.