The topic of mental health in Canada’s indigenous communities should be important to everyone in our country. As Canada moves forward in reconciliation for its past and current treatment of indigenous people, we need to figure out how to improve their well-being in a way that respects their autonomy and helps them live meaningfully. I say “they” because I am not a member of an indigenous community. However, I want to be careful not to create an “us” and “them” dynamic. Our indigenous communities in Canada should be considered an integral part of the fabric of this country and should be involved in any of the discussion concerning this land. That’s why I think “we” need to work together to do this. On my part, I want to use my platform on the Slay Girl Society website to raise awareness of the issues. That’s why I was pleased when I found out that Healthy Minds Canada was holding an event on indigenous youth and mental health at the Center for Indigenous Studies at the University of Toronto. The event was a panel discussion completely composed of people who are both from indigenous communities, some of whom also work with these communities directly in their careers. I was excited to learn from these panelists about their perspective on mental illness in order to write a blog post that can increase awareness without making assumptions or generalizations. The panelists included:
- Krystal Abotossaway (Moderator) – Aboriginal Talent Acquisition at TD Bank, Youth Board Member at Miziwe Biik
- Holly Smith – Project Coordinator First Nations and Inuit Screening Assessment Tools, CAMH Provincial System Support Program (PSSP)
- Krystine Abel – Aboriginal Evaluation Coordinator, CAMH Provincial System Support Program (PSSP)
- Makwa Baskin – Indigenous youth living with mental illness
So what was talked about at the Healthy Minds Canada event?
There are many social determinants that affect the mental health of indigenous youth. These determinants are multi-layered, systematic and institutionalized and include issues such as housing, poverty, unemployment, lack of education, food, water, and other barriers to a good life that compound and interact with each other.
When Makwa was discussing these barriers, his testimony was powerful and impactful. He told us about how growing up, he always felt like he had a target on his back in school. He felt that as indigenous youth, he felt like they were being pushed away and outcast and not given an equal shot. I was appalled to hear that he was actually told by a teacher that he shouldn’t continue with school after graduation because he was just going to “end up sitting around and collecting tax money.” Growing up, his mental health was impacted by various factors, including seeing family members die by gang violence or suicide, having family members in prison and experiencing racism.
Education quality was also discussed and how it is different on the reserve and off the reserve, as well as in rural and urban settings. Additionally, it is not culturally specific or relevant to the indigenous communities.
Another panelist mentioned that seeing her mother as a survivor of residential school was really difficult, as well as the implication of government policy towards indigenous communities on her family.
The current healthcare system and other institutions are not set up to address these issues. For people who are working to improve it, it is overwhelming to think of how to make meaningful changes to help address them. However, some suggestions were brought up in the panel discussion.
In indigenous communities, members grew up in collective societies that took care of each other but due to European influences, they have moved away from that model. In order to address mental health, the panelists agreed that “we need to reclaim our culture and move back to traditional ways of being and knowing.”
They also concluded that people in indigenous communities need to be educated on mental illness so that they can feel comfortable seeking help. Makwa mentioned that many indigenous youth don’t want to seek help because it is hard enough to get a job without the label of mental illness. People are also scared to seek help because they think they will be treated like a criminal. We need to approach people with mental illness from a place of non-judgment and compassion and love. We need to create safe environments for them to feel comfortable to share what is bothering them.
In order to build a healthcare system that addresses the unique perspective of indigenous communities, there needs to be a balance between Western medicine and traditional knowledge. This includes de-colonizing and unlearning western thinking and incorporating traditional teaching, spirituality and ceremonies.
The panelists also concluded that we need indigenous people working in mental health care and build their capacity to do so, so that they can educate the mainstream about indigenous practices and perspectives on healing.
Other ideas that came up in the discussion for addressing indigenous mental health is creating opportunities for socialization and coming together as a group, as well as offering opportunities for education on their own culture. However, it is important to acknowledge that it is hard for youth to participate in cultural programming because they need to take care of their physical needs first, like working, getting enough food to eat and getting an education.
Most importantly, the panelists emphasized that when figuring out how to address mental health for indigenous youth and what they need, we should ask them directly and listen to their own voices. Also, we need to be respectful and inclusive of all indigenous peoples. There are so many distinct Aboriginal communities in Canada and they aren’t all the same.
Do you have ideas on how to address mental health in indigenous communities? Share in the comments below!