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Mary Pember: Mental health system fails young Indian woman

Amelia Kay Looking Sabinsky

Mary Annette Pember reports on the struggles of Amelia Kay Looking Sabinsky, a member of the Fort Peck Tribes who died on August 19 at the age of 36:
According to a report from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, (NAMI), American Indians and Alaska Natives morbidity rates from mental illness are astronomically higher than those of their white peers. Suicide rates for American Indians, for instance, are 190 percent greater than for whites. The report further notes that economic status and race have pushed American Indians to the margins of U.S. society, creating barriers to even the most basic health care.

The National Health Care for the Homeless Coalition reports that American Indians are overrepresented in the homeless population. Although national studies are difficult to find, the report noted that in Montana, where American Indians make up 6 percent of population, they make up 11 percent of those served by the state’s Health Care for the Homeless Clinic. It seems reasonable to assume that a high percentage of Indian homeless people also suffer from mental illness and/or substance addiction and might benefit from enactment of an AOT statue.

From a judicial perspective, tribal courts are as varied as their mainstream counterparts in their approach to addressing involuntary commitment of the mentally ill. Sarah Deer of the Muscogee Nation and Colette Routel, professors at the William Mitchell College of Law, note that with 566 federally recognized sovereign tribes in the United States, there is a great deal of diversity in tribal guardianship laws. Many model their statues on state law, some have not updated their laws since their constitutions were first enacted and some integrate elements of the AOT model.

Ami, like so many mentally ill people, Indian and non-Indian, living on the reservation or in the city, tragically fell through the cracks. Her family tried over and over to get her the help she needed only to see her walk out of hospitals and treatment centers or simply leave the county if there was a commitment order for her.

The road to her final hospital stay was paved with desperation, schizophrenia, exasperating mental health laws, addiction, predation and prostitution, and what finally seems like murder.

“She was a hard rock that caused many a heartbreak, “ Redfeather-Looking said. During one of Ami’s toughest episodes, Redfeather-Looking recalls telling a friend “I’m not sure I even love her anymore.”

“My friend said, no, if you didn’t love her you wouldn’t care so much,” she said choking back tears.

Redfeather-Looking wants people to know that Ami was so much more than the disturbing and disruptive behaviors brought on by her illness. “She had a family; she was loved,” she said.

This is her little girl’s story.

Get the Story:
Mary Annette Pember: Nowhere to Turn: Our Mental Health System Is Sick (Indian Country Today 10/14)

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