AN ANALYSIS OF MENTAL HEALTH in INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES IN CANADA
AUTHOR: NEHA GULATI
Neha is in her second year of Health Sciences at Western University. Her research explores the development of sexual assault policies in South Asian countries, and their reflection of cultural values. Neha was awarded the Health Studies Student Achievement award in her first year, and was previously recognized by Young Sustainable Impact as one of the world’s Top 20 Under 20 environmentalists.
During the summer of 2014, I travelled with the Students on Ice Foundation to the high Canadian Arctic and Greenland. Throughout the trip I visited various northern communities that are inhabited by Inuit people- Aboriginal people living in the northern part of Canada. From my experiences in the formal education system, I have learned very little about Indigenous communities; what I did learn demonstrated that they receive various benefits, such as tax exemption and free post-secondary education. After only a few interactions with these Inuit people, I learned that despite their well-deserved, minimal compensation, there are many obstacles they must overcome. I heard stories from elders about lack of fresh water, food insecurity, and the challenge that resonated with me the most, poor mental health across all of their communities.
A miserable state of mental health in Indigenous communities has been built up over time though the historical mistreatment of Aboriginal people, however modern day factors such as impoverished living conditions and a lack of available support services also contribute to the problem. Any examination of the mental health of Indigenous people must consider the direct impact which precedent contact with Euro-Canadian culture has clearly had on the stature of their overall health. According to the Regional Health Survey, half of First Nations adults living on-reserve said their health and well-being had been negatively affected by the residential school experience (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2011). Survivors of residential schools have displayed symptomology quite similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Specifically, there are recurrent intrusive memories, nightmares, occasional flashbacks, and quite striking avoidance of anything that might be reminiscent of the Indigenous residential school experience (Brasfield, 2001). PTSD is a serious mental illness and studies have demonstrated that traumatic experiences can induce behavioural disorders that are passed down from one generation to the next; this mental illness can be hereditary. (ETH Zurich, 2014). Despite the fact that few generations of Aboriginals have directly suffered through Colonialism, the scars left on their mental health are present in current generations. In contrast, the current living conditions of Indigenous people have deteriorated their mental health as well. Many First Nations suffer from high unemployment, low income, low education levels and overcrowded housing. Studies indicate a strong correlation between poverty, along with the social deprivation it causes, and poor health among Canadians (Raphael, 2007). As a result, quality of life is compromised, which has an impact on mental health. It is evident that mental health concerns may arise in any person’s life, but low quality of life, which is certainly present in Indigenous communities, can increase one’s chances of being afflicted. Moreover, the mental health care available to Indigenous people within Canada is subpar at best. Based on the antecedent factors that contribute to poor mental health, it is expected that Aboriginal people would receive ample support for these issues, but this is not the case. In Ontario, for instance, mental health services on reserves are "at best probably minimal and at worst non-existent," according to Sol Mamakwa, health adviser for Nishnawbe Aski Nation, an organization representing 49 Aboriginal communities within a vast area of the province's north. (The Canadian Press, 2016). In 2004, the average number of psychiatrists practicing per 100,000 people in Ontario was 13.1; however, in northwest Ontario, the rate was only 3.3 psychiatrists per 100,000 population; these communities consist mainly of Indigenous people (Durbin et al, 2007). The services which are crucial to these communities are simply not being provided. Overall, the previous abusive experiences, consistent state of poverty and absence of sufficient health care services among Indigenous communities, all attribute to the unfortunate state of mental health which their people encounter.
As a student, I acknowledge that mental health is undeniably important, and in today’s busy world we often lose sight of the concept of maintaining good mental health. Very rarely do I come across a friend or classmate who has not been affected by mental illness; whether it has impacted them directly or someone to whom they are close, it is something with which many youth are struggling. I personally have dealt with mental illness, and overcoming that obstacle opened my eyes to how valuable mental health is. It is important that we take care of our health on every level, which is why when I see large groups, such as Aboriginals, struggling with mental health is becomes clear that it is a concern for our nation. A corrupt state of mental health resulting from the aforementioned factors can not only impact day to day life, but create more severe issues. Statistics show that First Nations youth die by suicide approximately five to six times more often than non-Aboriginal youth. The suicide rates for Inuit people are among the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average, and for young Inuit men the rates are 28 times higher (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2012).
There are an extensive number of potential solutions to the issue present throughout Canada; they exist on various levels, targeting poor Indigenous mental health in a variety of formats. There are nation-wide initiatives, such as the Government of Canada’s Mental Wellness Help Line for Indigenous People. This project began in October of 2016 and was designed to provide immediate and culturally appropriate assistance to those in need. The Help Line is being funded as part of the $69 million announced by the Government of Canada in June 2016 to support crisis response teams, mental wellness teams and increased access to mental health care services (Government of Canada, 2016). It is amazing that the government has devoted both time and money to this issue, however projects with such a large scope can often be ineffective as the outreach tends to be impersonal. There’s a lack of direct connection with those the program is servicing, and in order for them to receive this support they must be the ones to reach out. In contrast, projects with smaller-scale audiences, such as North in Focus, have had quite the impact. North in Focus was created by Western and McGill University students; it is a non-profit organization that promotes mental wellness, reduces mental health stigma, and empowers individuals to reach out for support (North In Focus, 2016). Their team conducts week long workshops for youth in northern, Indigenous communities with the goal of promoting positive mental health. They work closely with students by building personal relationships and bringing assistance directly to them. Focused programs such as these can be much more intimate, allowing contributors to see the direct and visible impact they are having. In order to make effective change, solutions to the Indigenous mental health crisis must deal with the issue on a personal level.
In summary, what I was faced with in the Arctic truly opened my eyes. Although anyone can struggle with their mental health, the Indigenous people of Canada have been placed in circumstances that only nurture the negative effects. The quality of our mental health can alter the quality of our lives. We must find ways to support these suffering communities, because no one should feel alone when it comes to mental health.
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Durbin, J., E. Lin, B. Rush, K. Thibault, and B. Smith. (November 2007). Impact Study: Midterm Report. Systems Enhancement Evaluation Initiative.
ETH Zurich. (2014, April 13). Hereditary trauma: Inheritance of traumas and how they may be mediated. Retrieved from
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Raphael, D. (2007). Poverty and Policy in Canada: Implications for Health and Quality of Life. Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholar's Press.
The Canadian Press. (2016, November 27). Lack of services contributing to indigenous mental health crisis: frontline workers. Retrieved from http://www.ctvnews.ca/health/lack-of- services-contributing-to-indigenous-mental-health-crisis-frontline-workers-1.3178797