Aboriginal community with strong ethno-cultural identity and connection to the land has lower suicide rates, and higher resilience. A study investigating the mental health perceptions and practices of an Aboriginal community in northern Ontario, and its significantly lower rates of mental health services utilization and suicide, suggests that a strong ethno cultural identity and connection to the land are significant factors to positive mental health outcomes.
The study appears in the latest edition of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.
The Cree community involved in the study is one of six First Nations communities located in the James and Hudson Bay region of northern Ontario. Despite a shared history of trauma and oppression with its sister communities, as well as an added trauma of natural disaster and subsequent relocation, this specific community has had markedly lower rates of depression, suicide, and utilization of mental health services.
“We discovered all but one of the Aboriginal communities had notoriously high rates of substance abuse, mental illness and teen suicide rates,” said the lead author. “Studies outlining the pathology of the Cree communities already existed, so we obtained grant funding in order to pursue qualitative research focusing on the one community that was thriving.”
The overall goal of the study was to examine what factors promote strength, resilience and more positive mental health outcomes in this Cree community. A qualitative study was conducted, involving interviews with elders, healers and mental health service providers to identify and further explore the features that distinguish this community.
“It was crucial that our research approach, collect and interpret data in a culturally sensitive and community-compatible way that supported the autonomy of this community,” said the researchers. “We used the medicine-wheel associated with traditional Aboriginal healing to categorize responses according to mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health.”
Overall findings from the study suggest that strength and resilience in mental health, as well as physical, spiritual, and emotional health, were positively attributed to having: a strong and deep connection to the land and traditions; an openness to diverse approaches to spirituality; community engagement, and shared parenting roles amongst its members.
“The most notable finding in this study was the way in which a connection to the land was interwoven throughout all responses,” said the researchers. “Participants’ comments regarding physical, spiritual, mental and emotional health often referred to attitudes and practices that affirmed a fundamental connection to the land.”
Participant responses also emphasized cultural continuity factors and an overall sense of ethno cultural identity.
We really want to shift the focus of these communities from one of pathology to one of resilience,” said the lead researcher. “Our goal is to help affirm a sense of pride, strength and health among these Aboriginal communities.”
So what? Another study conducted a few years ago compared the resilience of the inhabitants of rural Nicaragua and Miami Dade to a severe hurricane. Despite the hugely greater amount of state assistance available to the denizens of Dade County their overall resilience was low. There was a greatly increased rate of PTSD and mental illness, including suicide, as a result of the trauma. The data from research in Nicaragua after a similar hurricane showed a much greater resilience. The difference between the two, the researchers say, is that the Nicaraguans had a much deeper sense of community and were prepared to help each other out to a far greater extent. The fact that there was no prospect of outside help coming seemed to add to their resilience.
When I was studying hunter-gatherers I did not notice any incidence of long-term depression, suicide or PTSD, despite the many traumas that they had experienced over the years. Like the Cree they had a very strong attachment to the land and a very strong sense of community.
Resilience, then, is certainly, as this research shows, is very largely a matter of the solidity of the community and the amount of mutual help that there is to overcome adversity. With the rise of social media we are destroying what is left of community and the result will almost certainly be an increase in mental illness.