Why culture is key to Indigenous mental health

Carol Hopkins of the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation on the role cultural practices should play in supporting Indigenous communities
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Sep 26, 2017
Carol Hopkins says it's important to remember the inherent strengths of Indigenous communities. (Ontario Brain Institute)



Carol Hopkins firmly believes there are promising paths forward for Indigenous communities confronting mental health and addiction issues. A member of the Delaware First Nation of Moraviantown, Ontario, Hopkins — also known as Nozhem of the Wolf Clan — is executive director of the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation, which works with First Nations and Inuit communities to address substance abuse and addiction. While Hopkins is hopeful, though, she says too few mental health services are grounded in the historical and cultural contexts that are crucial for Indigenous healing.

Hopkins will be appearing at an Ontario Brain Institute event devoted to a discussion of mental wellness in Indigenous communities. TVO will be streaming the talk, which starts at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 26.

The event is now over, but you can watch a replay by clicking "watch again" above.

How challenging is it for Indigenous people to get access to mental health services in the first place?  

If you live in the northern part of the province in a remote or isolated community, or in a rural community where you might be living in poverty and don’t have access to transportation, getting to a provincially funded service for mental health can be challenging.  

When we’re working with populations where the first language is an Indigenous language, it’s always best if people have the opportunity to fully express themselves in their own language. But if the service provider doesn’t have that capacity, then it creates a significant barrier.  

Then there’s cultural competency. The mental health service provider might not have an understanding of the concept of colonization, current experiences with racism, or intergenerational trauma. And, most critically, the service provider may not see the individual in the context of their community or in the context of their culture.

When people show up with these experiences in an environment that isn’t culturally competent or culturally safe, there isn’t consideration for the experience of the whole family or the experience of the whole community within the context of colonization. And so Indigenous people become pathologized by that. We diagnose them as having certain disorders, and we label them and place the burden on them. We don’t recognize the behaviour as a direct result of colonization, but see it as a mental health issue of the individual.  

A lot of people who are not Indigenous might think nothing, for example, of someone raised in an abusive home later being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. It is seen as understandable for a person to develop a mental health problem as a result of trauma and to need treatment for that. Does that kind of assumption work in the Indigenous context?  

The difference is that the individual in the greater Canadian population can find lots of situations, through work or social networks or religious networks or hobbies and recreation, where they can find individuals without that same experience. In an Indigenous population, only one person may get diagnosed with anxiety. Meanwhile, they might have siblings or other people in the community around them that have the same kinds of symptoms, but don’t get diagnosed. And so you can give medication to the one individual to treat the anxiety, but what about the rest of the community?

Medication to treat anxiety is an answer. It’s a credible answer. But there also are Indigenous cultural practices that address not only the individual, but also the family and the community within which the individual lives.

I watched a video in which you discuss the need to talk about not just the deficits, but also the resilience of Indigenous communities. Why is that so important in the context of better mental health?  

Talking about the strengths of Indigenous communities is important because funders and the general public are inundated with stories of deficits and problems and crises. What that means is that Indigenous communities don’t get adequate funding, and the general public doesn’t believe Indigenous people have the capacity to manage funding or personnel in their communities. We have elders and cultural practitioners who get called on 24/7, but they’re not part of the recognized [mental health and addictions] workforce. And the cultural practices that I’ve been talking about are not part of the formal program of services, because they’re not recognized as credible. These practitioners don’t have the same kind of certification, qualifications, and credentials as the mainstream professionals who typically work in the field of mental health and addictions.  

Also, it’s somewhat limiting to talk about strengths in terms of resiliency. What’s missing from that is a belief that our identity and culture is inherently a strength.

What will your main message be at the Brain Institute talk Tuesday evening?  

I think the main message is a message of hope. All of the issues that plague our communities — those issues don’t make up who we are as Indigenous people. Those are circumstances that we encounter, unfortunately, because of our race. A lot of those problems are due to policies that were implemented because of the race of people that we are. And despite that, we have a strong foundation that is our identity and our connection to our land. With the support of our ancestors, we have a strong foundation for hope for our future. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


The Agenda: Targeting Indigenous Mental Health

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