Social and Emotional Well-Being of First Peoples: How it’s different, why it’s important, and what’s being done about it
By Elizabeth Gunggoll
Is there a half life on historical trauma?
Or in other words, as Mike Myers discussed this question in an Indian Country Today article, will 500 years suffice for North America’s First Peoples to surpass countless murders, the loss of Indigenous civilizations, languages and cultures, as well as Indigenous agricultural economies that began in 1493? The thought is that maybe they will be able to return to a model of Indigenous nationhood founded on their original principles and teachings that will endure into future generations by the year 2500. However, musings such as these do little to speak to solutions for Indigenous mental health practiced today.
Instances of colonization, genocide, alienation and other historical traumas posed on entire Indigenous communities have had severe repercussions on mental health, and often Western Psychology practices are not fully suited, or trusted by Indigenous communities, to offer aid. Research is now being done in a new field of mental health, working to combine traditional healing and modern scientific technologies in order to offer a culturally-tailored method of care to First Peoples.
The harrowing effects of European colonization, spanning from the 1500s onward, are well known. Encounters with European explorers fast-tracked Indigenous communities for cultural change, and the introduction of foreign diseases and stressors lead to a suppression of Indigenous cultures tantamount to genocide (The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples). Children in colonized countries were often taken from their parents and enrolled in boarding schools created to enforce “proper” European values on Indigenous children so that they were “deemed fit to participate in local government.” This continued in North America until the 1970s, however it is still an active example of trauma in Indigenous groups around the world.
Even after coming to terms with what Westerners historically put Indigenous peoples through, colonization did not actually stop there. Even in the past decade, the Canadian government has imposed restrictions on First Nations, distancing them from their land and therefore their sense of identity. A recent example would be the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would once again displace Indigenous communities from land that historically serves a spiritual purpose in their daily lives. Consequently, this continuous colonization causes negative effects on well-being to pervade present generations.
The issues at hand
Social and emotional well-being is often confused with “mental health”, however well-being encompasses much more than observing how someone thinks and feels. The term acknowledges a person’s social, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and cultural welfare. A connection to land, family history, relationships with family and friends, and engagement with community are all important factors contributing to social and emotional well-being in Indigenous communities.
However well-being can be difficult to measure considering most data come from self-reported surveys and interviews, which can be biased when individuals are hesitant to admit they need help. Additionally, Indigenous peoples globally might not seek medical assistance due to language barriers, and many live in rural communities where hospitals and psychologists are simply out of their reach. However, enough information has been gathered over the years to show that Indigenous peoples show higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide than non-Indigenous peoples.
The effects of colonization continue to permeate present generations of the San peoples in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve: children are still sent to boarding schools for Western education, so they inadvertently lose their language and connection to the land that comes with being raised in their native culture. Forcefully taking children away from their parents expectedly has hugely negative effects on both ends. The children feel torn from their culture and lose their sense of identity, while parents are constantly worrying where their children might be and wondering when they might see them again.
“It is so painful leaving or being separated from our children, we have a lot of depression. Kids being taken away… divides the family. It teaches them a different kind of life.” – San individual, Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana
Additionally, San people have expressed their sadness, pain, and worry regarding the stressors the government causes on a daily basis. They feel helpless under the control of the local police, and feel that little can be done to create self-sufficiency in their environment. Moreover, there is a “pervasive lack of hope and motivation” which stem from the restrictions imposed on their own livelihood.
The mental well-being of the San peoples is severely compromised due to the factors under which they are forced to conduct their lives. There is a constant need to prioritize food, water, mobility, and physical health, which understandably makes mental well-being a secondary issue. On top of these factors, it is nearly impossible to get help because their rural settlement is a multi-day journey from the nearest hospital. San peoples are hopeful that countries aware of their situation will offer help – but whoever comes their way needs to be cognizant of their needs as identified by the San people, and mold an approach to aid their well-being that is specific to the context of the situation in which they live.
Working toward an “Indigenous Psychology”
We have seen that the stressors stemming out of marginalization from the government cause Indigenous peoples to lose sight of hope and motivation. Communities are further hindered by needing to consistently place basic human needs for food and physical health before attending to personal well-being, and even when the opportunity arises to reach out for help, the journey to recovery is miles out of reach.
A number of individuals working in medical and psychological fields have taken notice of the need for an Indigenous-tailored approach to well-being. What they found to be most important is the ability to mesh the best of both realms: culture-specific healing methods alongside modern psychology.
“As Indigenous communities are individually governed and culturally diverse, there exists a need for community-specific language and approaches based on language, traditional knowledge, and cultural practices.”
Elicia Goodsoldier is one such example. Elicia Goodsoldier, Dine’/Spirit Lake Dakota, has jumpstarted a number of programs and councils to provide more culturally aware and responsive forms of outreach in multicultural communities. Through her work, she acknowledges the severity of the effects historical and intergenerational traumas have on mental health, and works to educate mainstream behavioral health care providers about both native issues and mental health care issues on a national scale. By bringing awareness to the significance and potential efficacy of traditional and spiritual healing alongside modern neuroscience, she makes the journey to healing more accessible and attainable to Native communities.
Many Indigenous peoples are reluctant to reach out for help because it is frowned upon within their communities. This is particularly true for Indigenous youth, who are at times discouraged from bringing up thoughts of suicide to adults in their community. A support system of similarly-minded youth that share the same perspective is a valuable resource: The Center for Native American Youth in Tucson, Arizona holds bi-weekly meetings where youth representatives from each district are able to discuss the issues facing their peers. Concerns such as suicide are openly discussed, and this program has helped a number of youth take steps to escape such debilitating stages of depression. The center takes an innovative approach by directly asking the teens what would be most helpful and where they would feel most safe to express their needs. Youth are more comfortable opening up to their peers when there is an environment of mutual respect, and the adults involved in this program feel that in order to be the best resource possible, they need to be able to better understand and relate to the youth. Additionally, they work to make the environment as all-encompassing as possible since so many different Indigenous communities exist in the area.
The integration of traditional remedies and cutting edge science alongside direct efforts to openly offer aid to apprehensive Indigenous youth is a step in the right direction in decreasing the disparity of care between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. But more can be done to increase well-being among Indigenous peoples.
Marginalization from the state has detrimental effects on the self-efficacy and self-worth of First Peoples, and simply allowing participation in their local politics improves mental well-being for many individuals. It is critical to reinforce a sense of community and empowerment by increasing participation in developing self-governance, meaning less is being asked for from the “outside” and Indigenous communities rely more on themselves.
As Indigenous mental health solutions continue to develop, we continue to see a discrepancy in the number of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and suicide, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. What is clear is that a balance needs to be created in Western Psychology, using both traditional remedies and modern science to advance services for the mental well-being of Indigenous peoples. The increasing availability of such services are showing improvement within local communities, but the largest changes will come when Indigenous communities can address mental well-being with their own solutions.
- Kirmayer, Laurence J, Gregory M Brass, and Caroline L Tait. “The Mental Health Of Aboriginal Peoples: Transformations Of Identity And Community.” Canadian Journal Of Psychiatry 45.7 (2000): 607-616.Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
- Executive Summary, “FPW Needs Assessment and Community Engagement in Botswana”, First Peoples Worldwide, 2012