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Culturally appropriate care

Destigmatizing mental health at the community level


By Michelle Osmond

In a survey, 22 per cent of NunatuKavut people reported feeling depressed, while the national average ranges from 4.3 to 7.3 per cent.

The 2012 survey was part of a NunatuKavut Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) where many participants of the coastal Labrador communities also said there is a ‘culture of silence’ around mental health issues.

Dr. Jennifer Shea is hoping to break the silence. She’s embarking on a project that she hopes will de-stigmatize mental health within the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) and enhance access to mental health and addictions programming.

Medicine, research, Labrador, NunatuKavut, north, Indigenous
Dr. Jennifer Shea is researching mental health and addition in the NunatuKavut Community Council
Photo: Submitted

A Memorial alumna and assistant professor of Aboriginal health in the Faculty of Medicine, Dr. Shea’s research is rooted in the local expertise from diverse stakeholders, including patients, families, health-care providers and community leaders. It includes community-based participatory and decolonizing approaches.

“[Western] models of treatment may neglect an understanding of the trauma endured through colonialism, which impacts mental health status.” —Dr. Jennifer Shea

“The lived experience and local knowledge within NunatuKavut’s territory will guide all aspects of the project,” she said, adding that community leadership and governance is critical to the work. “Community members are the experts on the reality of mental health and addictions in NunatuKavut communities. They know first-hand what’s available, what works and doesn’t work, and what’s needed to close the gap.”

The project will include such things as sharing circles to allow community members to share their experiences and expertise through storytelling, as well as individual conversational interviews.

Acknowledging the past

According to Dr. Shea, mental health and addictions services are often based on western ideas of health and therefore not always culturally appropriate for Indigenous peoples. “Indigenous culture, resilience and holistic definitions of health are often not integrated. Models of treatment may neglect an understanding of the trauma endured through colonialism, which impacts mental health status.”

“A critical piece of reconciliation is confronting our painful past, and this is a requirement of all Canadians. To treat the immediate symptoms, such as depression, without an acknowledgment of the past and its impact overlooks a key piece of the puzzle,” she added.

“We want to build on the resilience and strong culture of Southern Inuit to design a program with and for the community that can be utilized beyond the project to improve health in the communities.”

Strong communities

Dr. Shea describes members of NunatuKavut as strong, determined, resilient, and caring with community being of the upmost importance.

“NunatuKavut recognizes the need for more culturally appropriate and culturally responsive mental health services and programs in our communities,” said Darlene Wall, co-principal investigator and manager of Health and Social Sector for NCC. “We are optimistic that through this project, working with grassroots community members and researchers, we can make a positive impact for our people.”

Dr. Shea and her interdisciplinary team, which includes community members, received $100,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for the project. The 18-member team includes co-principal investigators Julie Bull from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at the University of Toronto and Ms. Wall, as well as co-investigators from Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine: Dr. Fern Brunger, Dr. James Valcour, Nathanial Pollock and Dr. Michael Jong.

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