09/10/2015 12:25 EDT | Updated 11/28/2017 09:57 EST

Stigma of Mental Illness Cuts Deeper For Canada's Aboriginal People


I recently attended a mental health first aid course in order to further educate myself on the various mental illness disorders, the consequences of their severity and their overall prevalence in the population. This course is a means of developing the tools to help in a crisis situation before an emergency team arrives on the scene, i.e. suicide intervention, psychotic episodes. The students were eager to learn and participate. The course leader was interesting and insightful. My own eyes were opened to an entire population of our Canadian people whose rate of suicide was too horrifying to further ignore.

As statistics related to aboriginal suicides were listed, I realized that this war being waged against the stigma of mental illness is but one of the many battles that will need to be addressed honestly in order to understand the magnitude of the affliction our mentally ill population is facing, and our aboriginal population in particular. As communities of aboriginals are fighting an invisible disease, society can dismiss the reality of the stigma by citing drugs and alcohol as the weak link in this people's history.

Statistics will state that First Nations people have the highest rate of suicide in any Canadian province. According to Statistics Canada in 2012, the national average itself was alarmingly high with 11.5 deaths per 100,000 people.

But among aboriginal people, the national average for First Nations males is 126 suicides per 100,000 people and for First Nations females it is 35 per 100,000. I'll admit that while listening to the statistics, although I was writing as fast as my pen could scrawl on my notepad, my mind had not really registered the immensity of this tragedy until one of my classmates spoke up. His name is Herman Harper, community support worker for Holistic Health Services under the St. Theresa Point Health Authority. He and his boss were participating in the Mental Health First Aid program in order to learn some tools that could hopefully save the lives of some of the more troubled residents in their community of St. Theresa Point, Manitoba.

For Mr. Harper, the necessity to implement mental health programs within northern communities is not only a distant hope, it is personal and necessary. His own story was the catalyst to his newfound passion, as he articulated with great bravery to the entire class his descent from his position as the community's constable to being homeless in Winnipeg streets for 17 months.

While his wife was sick in a Winnipeg hospital, Mr. Harper had to quit his station in St. Theresa Point in order to be closer to his wife. However, as his funds to remain in the city quickly dwindled, he had no choice but to live on the streets until his wife was well enough to return to their home.

Upon return to their community, Mr. Harper found himself jobless, hopeless and depressed. As most northern communities can attest to, their remote and isolated locations and the lack of resources provided by the government,contribute to near non-existent counsel and therapy. Self-medication in the form of drugs and alcohol is rampant among several northern aboriginal communities, and Mr. Harper pointed out an obvious need for greater mental health education not only within these communities, but also within Canada, to detail the traumatized psychological plight of the Aboriginal people.

His own current education within mental health awareness programs is a means of propelling the message throughout various government agencies that the rate of drugs and alcohol in St. Theresa Point, and among similar remote northern communities, is the backlash of undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety resulting from the legacy of the residential school system implemented in 1870 until 1998.

Needless to say, in a society where mental health awareness scores low in the eyes of governmental agencies, leaving its sufferers feeling lonely, dejected and most often scorned by a health care system that ignores very real signs and symptoms of mental illness, aboriginal people have an even greater trial ahead coaxing the provision of mental health services in remote communities and/or the training of its community residents to respond to crisis situations.

The stigma for aboriginal people is greater as they must not only eradicate the notion that mental illness is a figment of the imagination, but in the case of drug and alcohol abuse, disproving the fallacy that this is a way of life rather than a mental illness that leads to suicide -- this sad outcome must begin to move the hearts of Canadian society to work towards achieving common outcomes for all those suffering from mental illness rather than focus on racial scorn and the concept of merit.

I have made it no secret that I am an advocate for the rights of indigenous people. But breaking down the stigma of mental illness is key for healing.

In aboriginal communities, mental health treatment is not just a right, but a necessity in order to draw attention to the fact that drug and alcohol abuse are symptoms of a major depression that stems back centuries, propelled forward by the lingering toxins of the residential school system. If society as a whole began to think of mental illness as a real and deadly force, greater action would be taken in treating it.

Perhaps if the rate of suicide among Canadians of non-aboriginal descent were as elevated as those of aboriginal people, action would be taken to implement serious treatment within the healthcare system?

Sadly though, the suicide rate among indigenous people is staggering, yet progress in implementing programs and acknowledging that the stigma in those communities goes beyond denying mental illness as very real is still a battle to be fought.

More to the point, drug and alcohol abuse need to be acknowledged as a byproduct of mental illness -- an illness entrenched in aboriginal life due to lingering pain of the residential school system. In order for all of this to occur, there needs to be a national focus on mental health awareness. Only then will eyes be opened not only to our national suicide epidemic, but hopefully to the disregarded suicide rates of the aboriginal people as well.


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