In September 2010, ‘Bell Let’s Talk’ began a new conversation about mental health in Canada. ‘MGH Let’s Listen’ is a Hospital series dedicated to listening to the stories of healthcare providers and community leaders working and caring for people experiencing mental health issues in the Canadian healthcare system.
Elder Little Brown Bear (left) was recognized for his Outstanding Indigenous Leadership and presented with the Sovereign Medal on January 28, 2018 by the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.
As an Indigenous Elder, I truly believe we need to change the wording from “mental health” to “mental well-being”.
Mental health as we know it has a negative connotation. You are sometimes looked upon as being “crazy”, looked at differently, or even judged. We need to look at what’s underneath and what is felt by our community members – and I call them ‘community members’ versus client’s or patients; even being referred to as a “patient” or “client” can have a negative association in our culture.
In the news, we often here about how much money is being spent on addictions and mental health. My question is around why there is no money for trauma or traumatic issues. In the Aboriginal Healing Program, we explore all three and the first is trauma, then addictions and mental well-being.
Trauma is the driver of a lot of issues for community members, and if those issues are not addressed, more often than not they turn to mood-altering substances to escape and numb the pain; continuous use results in mental well-being issues.
For some, addiction drives mental well-being issues, and for others, the mental well-being issues drives addiction – but they are still left with the trauma, which is the initial driver of all of this.
The use of our sacred medicines tobacco, cedar, sweet grass, sage and lavender, help community members on their healing paths and address trauma or traumatic issues. It’s really interesting when they get on their healing journeys, and in time, find they no longer need mood altering substances to cope and the diagnoses they were given for depression or anxiety is no longer there.
My philosophy is but a simple one “people don’t care how much you know however they want to know how much you care.”
Mental well-being from an Aboriginal perspective
For Aboriginal people, understanding that we have choices on our healing journey is empowering. It gives us strength to keep going even when we fall down. There is no time limit on a healing journey; there is no pressure to complete the program in 21 or 28 days. Time limits create stress and can make a person feel hopeless or a lost cause if you are not healed or cured in that short time. While a Western model is based more on hierarchy, we work in circles where everyone is equal; disconnection creates pain.
What we really need is a place to heal the hurt. The definition of what hurt means – of what trauma means – needs to be left up to the individual and worked through with the Elder. We each contribute to each other’s healing. The Aboriginal Community comes together for “Healing”.
Aboriginal Healing Program, ‘a place where you can be honest’
The Aboriginal Healing Program helps community members find a peaceful, loving atmosphere – a place you can be honest and fully accepted as you are. It’s a safe space to get guidance on your healing journey.
It’s a place that teaches us to heal through laughter. We learn that “teasing” is okay because it shows our brother and sisters we love them and that it’s healthy to laugh at ourselves.
We learn about the medicine wheel and grandfather teachings. We learn that every living being has a reason and a purpose for being here; we learn to tap into our spiritual selves and find our centre.
It’s a place that doesn’t leave you alone to work through your healing. It teaches us mental, emotional, spiritual and physical well-being and that these are all related. This place helps us find who we are, (medicines men, pipe carriers, clan mothers) so we can pass teachings on to the next seven generations.
We learn about respect for ourselves, our brothers and sisters and everything around us.
‘People helping people – the more we bring together, the stronger the healing becomes’
Service providers would benefit from having a better understanding of who we are as Aboriginal people, our culture, traditions and our way of life; educating healthcare professionals on these healing needs would make us feel more valued and respected.
“People helping people” – the more people we bring together in healing, the stronger the healing becomes. We need more respect for the traditional medicines and healers and medicine people so that pharmaceutical is not the first go-to option. Often medications cover the problem, but don’t create healing.
Non- traditional vs. medicine are different, but both are equal. Sweat lodges are serious and completely confidential places of healing and detoxing of not just the body, but of the psyche, spiritual, emotional being. We need the system to recognize this as a valid form of healing. Also pow wow’s, drumming, beading, feast – these all bring people together to heal and out of their isolation and detriment.
We need places that focus on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual healing like the Aboriginal Healing Program. Our connection to this place is what helps us continue to live a good life; staying connected after we have completed the program. Family is important, community is important.
We need people to shift their understanding of mental illness; it is not a reason to look down on a person. This needs to be reflected in the courts to avoid hierarchical and unforgiving spaces that pose barriers to healing. It is important to recognize and give credit to the work and progress a person makes to walk and be in a good way as opposed to focusing on past actions.
Healing under one sky,
Elder Little Brown Bear