Mental health in First Nations communities


The unique healthcare challenges faced by indigenous peoples

According to Statistics Canada, in 2011, First Nations people represented 4% of the total Canadian population. The national rate of suicide among First Nations communities is roughly double that of the general population, and these numbers show no signs of decreasing any time soon. These statistics may seem alarming to you, and you may even be wondering if they’re being inflated. But, if this is in fact shocking to you, then you honestly haven’t been paying attention.

The reality is that suicide and depression are prevalent among Canadians in general, but it is not a mere coincidence that First Nations communities report higher prevalence in these categories. As with anyone who experiences mental health issues, there is almost always multiple external factors, that come into play along with the internal factors.

One of the factors is the unique set of challenges that First Nations people are forced to face on a day to day basis. This can be traced back to the systemic racism that has been occurring for generations. One example of this is residential schools. Although it may not feel like it, this cultural genocide did not occur that long ago. As a First Nations woman, it is frightening to know that my grandparents, parents, and others my age have felt (and are still feeling) the after effects of this horrible injustice. Studies have shown that residential schools are believed to have shaped the mental health of First Nations people. A research project commissioned by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation found that 75 percent of the case files for a sample of Aboriginal residential school survivors contained mental health information, with the most common mental health diagnoses being post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse disorder and major depression. If you know anything at all about residential schools, this should not be surprising to you.

Non-aboriginal people often see high levels of alcohol or drug abuse in First Nations communities and automatically declare this as the root of the problem when it comes to mental health. However, this is the furthest thing from the truth. I can’t speak for every Indigenous person out there, but based on my own experience as someone who has grown up on a reserve, I would say that most First Nations people turn to alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism. They abuse these substances as a way to deal with their mental health issues, rather than seeking professional help. I’m not trying to undermine the horrific effects of drugs and alcohol on First Nations communities, because I have seen first hand exactly how destructive they can be. But, I’d like to acknowledge that these substances are not always the sole perpetrator. I have watched people from my home community experience a great deal of loss, based primarily on their First Nations status. I have seen first hand how differently my family members have been treated, as though they were uncivilized and not worthy of respect, as if their opinions don’t matter, simply because of their blood. To say that these circumstances would result in anything other than poor mental health would be naïve.

Another aspect that people often overlook is how difficult it can be for First Nations communities to gain access to the necessary mental health resources. These communities are often highly isolated and so it can be difficult for people to seek help when it is not available on the reserve itself. Even then, if the resources are available on the reserve, people still may fail to seek help due to the stigma surrounding mental health in our society. Especially on smaller reserves, it can sometimes feel like everybody knows your business and if you tell someone that you are seeking help, sooner or later the whole community will know. While we are currently making strides in terms of ending the stigma that goes along with mental health issues, we unfortunately haven’t come far enough if people are still too ashamed to seek help.

Furthermore, it is important to consider the importance (or lack thereof) that is put on mental health in some First Nations communities. In some First Nations communities in Canada, people are still living without access to clean water, struggling to make ends meet and to feed their children. Rather than drawing the attention to mental health initiatives, entire reserves are forced to focus on survival and escaping poverty. This forces them to put their mental health on the backburner, even if they are aware of what is at stake. Sometimes awareness simply isn’t enough.

To put it simply, as a collective, Canadians are not doing enough. In the 2017 budget, the government pledged $188.2 million over five years to improve mental health services for First Nations and Inuit communities. This builds on $69 million announced last year to fund community-based workers and mental wellness teams and to ensure there are counsellors in regions facing crisis.

This sounds great in theory, but only time will tell if this pledge actually creates the necessary resources. And the sad truth is that we don’t have time to wait and see because people’s lives are at stake.

As a First Nations woman, I urge you to educate yourself. I urge you to get involved. You may be saying “why should this be my problem?” But the fact is that First Nations people matter. You should care about insanely high suicide rates in absolutely any population, especially when part of the reason these statistics are so high is because of the way that society has treated this group of people in the past century. You can’t force everyone to care, but my hope is that people will.