Why culture is important for Indigenous mental health

Learn how culturally-strengthening approaches to mental wellness can improve Indigenous mental health resilience.

The experiences and environment people are exposed to in early life can affect their mental health. This can increase risk of anxiety, stress and mental illness.

Historically, Indigenous people in Canada faced unique challenges that continue to impact both mental health and access to services.

Stephanie Montesanti, assistant professor, School of Public Health, shares how culturally-strengthening approaches to mental wellness that are based on cultural strengths improve positive mental health resilience for Indigenous children, youth, adults and families.

Suicide rates in First Nations communities

"Suicide rates are shockingly high in the Indigenous population in Canada today," explains Montesanti. "But, before the 19th-century, suicide was extremely rare in North American Native communities."

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has identified suicide and self-inflicted injuries as the leading cause of death for First Nations youth and adults up to 44 years of age. The suicide rate among First Nations communities is five to six times higher than the national average. And, in Inuit communities, the youth suicide rate is 11 times the national average.

PHAC links these high rates to historical trauma, loss of culture and the social upheaval that Indigenous communities have faced since contact with Europeans and from colonization.

Intergenerational trauma from government policy

"Institutionalized racism was built-in to the Canadian government's policies of forced assimilation. Those policies have had detrimental effects on Indigenous culture," says Montesanti. "This has contributed to a steady increase of suicide in the 20th century, and continues today."

Long term results of these policies include the loss of:

  • Culture;
  • Language;
  • Traditional values; and
  • Traditional family structure.

These impacts have been passed down through the decades, an effect called intergenerational trauma.

Addressing mental health issues by strengthening culture

Healing in Indigenous communities is an ongoing process. Several programs, frameworks and strategies have been developed to address mental health issues such as:

Montesanti's research is centered on developing culturally-strengthening interventions to promote positive mental health and wellness. One approach she takes is encouraging the restoration of Indigenous culture through artistic expressions, and creative ways of knowing and being.

"Art-based therapy or creative expression can promote community strength and resilience. This contributes to improved mental health outcomes," explains Montesanti. "In Indigenous cultures, producing art or participating in creative expression is woven into the fabric of everyday life."

This may include:

  • Creating cultural items, such as clothing and baskets.
  • Creating items of spiritual significance.
  • Participating in songs, stories, and plays that are used to pass on stories, traditions or personal conflicts.

"Engaging youth in imaginative play for social transformation offers an opportunity for personal healing."

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