Supporting Urban Native American Youth in Their Transition to Adulthood

A young Native American person reading a book.

Meeting the Transition Needs of Urban American Indian/Alaska Native Youth through Culturally Based Services” (abstract). Barbara J. Friesen, Terry L. Cross, Pauline Jivanjee, Ashley Thirstrup, Abby Bandurraga, L. K. Gowen, and Jen Rountree. Journal of Behavioral Health Services and Research, Vol. 42, No. 2 (April 2015).

What it’s about: Researchers Friesen, Cross, Jivanjee, Thirstrup, Bandurraga, Gowen, and Rountree wanted to know what urban American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) youth need to successfully transition to adulthood. To find out, they conducted three studies of transition needs and relevant culturally based practices that identified interventions, reported the results of focus groups with youth, and outlined the youth advocacy process, respectively. The Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) in Portland, Oregon, served as the study site.

Why read it: The studies reveal that urban AI/AN youth have poor transition outcomes relating to education, employment, and poverty.  The authors also underscore national data showing that these youth experience risk factors for substance abuse and violence at twice the rates of their white counterparts, attempt suicide nearly three times more often than white youth, and are at relatively greater risk for serious mental health problems. The research team’s recommendations for service providers include implementing culturally appropriate approaches to help these youth minimize risk factors and increase protective factors. This set of studies could inform such approaches.

Biggest takeaways: The first study identified 23 clusters of strategic interventions used by NAYA to address the needs of AI/AN youth, including those in the transition years. Friesen’s research team broke the interventions into four groups mirroring the Relational Worldview framework: mind, context, spirit, and body.

  1. Mind – interventions that promote intellectual and emotional functioning:
    • Mentoring
    • Role modeling.
    • Identity enhancement.
    • Emotional, character, and talent development.
    • Learning community/enhancement.
    • Mitigating impacts of racism.
    • Leadership and service development.
  2. Context – interventions that foster relationships with adults, family, peers, school, and other external factors:
    • Holistic response (i.e., understanding the whole person).
    • Safe milieu (i.e., promoting safe schools and neighborhoods.)
    • Building community.
    • Case management.
    • Family support and interaction.
    • Social justice and equity protection (i.e., ensuring all people are equally protected from injustice).
  3. Spirit – interventions that seek to encourage a sense of meaning, hope, faith, moral values, and relationship with a higher power:
    • Activities and ceremony.
    • Cultural preservation.
    • Personal vision (i.e., helping participants create a vision of the self).
    • Future (i.e., encouraging participants to focus on goals and aspirations).
  4. Body – interventions that educate about physiological function, including genetics, brain chemistry, nutrition, and sleep:
    • Nurturing, structured, and consistent environment.
    • Wellness promotion.
    • Activities, events, art, and ceremony.

The authors used these groupings as the foundation for the other two studies.

For the second study, on transition challenges and supports, the research team held five focus groups and nine individual interviews with 15 young women and three young men with foster care experience and six young women and nine young men who had never been in foster care but who reported receiving mental health services. All participants were 17-23 years old and were receiving services at NAYA. These youth expressed appreciation for warm relationships, consistent messages, exposure to opportunities for skill development, access to needed resources, the focus on strengths rather than weaknesses, and high expectations to learn about and actively participate in the Native community and its cultural activities.

The participants in the third study, on youth advocacy/case management at NAYA, were youth with mental health challenges and their culturally matched youth advocates. The youth noted their appreciation for the ongoing support of a youth advocate, and for access to resources, career and educational opportunities, and cultural connections.

Based on the studies, Friesen’s research team recommends that youth-serving organizations and policymakers connect urban AI/AN youth to culturally specific services whenever possible, including through referrals and employment of cultural consultants and AI/AN staff. The authors further note that what constitutes a successful transition in AI/AN communities, which typically value interdependence over independence, differs from mainstream culture, which emphasizes independence. They write that “many youth experience an almost irreconcilable tension trying to have a foot in each world.”

Additional references: Look for more articles on American Indian and Alaska Native (Native American) youth and cultural competence in our digital library.

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