Now, a new survey by Statistics Canada focuses on the mental health of Indigenous people — and it’s clear the impact of COVID-19 has been severe.
Sixty per cent of Indigenous people say their mental health has worsened since the onset of physical distancing measures. Forty-six per cent of Indigenous women and 32 per cent of Indigenous men describe most of their days as “quite a bit stressful” or “extremely stressful.”
Forty-eight per cent of Indigenous women and 31 per cent of Indigenous men reported symptoms consistent with generalized anxiety disorder.
For reference, 16 per cent of Indigenous people reported fair or poor mental health prior to the pandemic in the 2017 Aboriginal Peoples Survey.
The online questionnaire was completed by approximately 1,400 First Nations people, Metis and Inuit aged 15 years and older.
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Mental health disparities between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations in Canada have been “well documented,” reads the study.
“They have been linked to the intergenerational effects of residential schools, the forced relocation of communities and removal of children from families and communities and mental health service gaps.”
Unfortunately, experts like Christopher Mushquash, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous mental health and addiction, aren’t surprised by these results. He says social determinants of health have long played a role in Indigenous mental health, and the COVID-19 outbreak is only highlighting those pre-existing problems.
These are social and economic factors like income, discrimination and access to quality food, health care and education, all of which can impact a person’s health and how long they will live, he said.
“When you look at mental health difficulties, there’s a number of (factors) that are important for consideration,” Mushquash told Global News.
“If you think about the history of colonial impositions on Indigenous communities — from assimilation policies that have disrupted families, communities (and) traditions and disrupted cultural practices — this has really led to an intergenerational transmission of difficulties.”
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The trauma experienced by Indigenous people in the past — whether it was from colonization, the residential school system and the ’60s Scoop, among other things — was passed down to younger generations, and it contributes to the poor mental and physical health of people today.
“The pandemic really makes clear just how big some of the gaps are, and indeed, where they are,” Mushquash said.
Given Indigenous culture and tradition, it makes sense that forced physical distancing would harm Indigenous mental health, said Roderick McCormick, an Indigenous health researcher at Thompson Rivers University.
“There’s a disconnection, and (for a lot of people), that’s going to be the main stressor,” McCormick said. “We prefer to communicate in person.”
Some Indigenous people use social media or the phone, but broadly speaking, “face to face is usually the preferred option,” McCormick said.
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This is all compounded by the fact that it’s difficult to find mental health treatment that is “culturally-based,” McCormick said.
For McCormick, that means the practitioner providing care is Indigenous — someone who understands the mental health care system, the Indigenous culture and traditions and the strength of intergenerational trauma.
“They will also know what some of the more naturally occurring resources are, like support groups and people in the community who are good to talk to, like elders,” McCormick said.
Ultimately, the gap between non-Indigenous and Indigenous mental health has always been there, but the pandemic is making it wider.
“There are funding issues and lack of services (for Indigenous people) — those have been in existence (since before the pandemic),” McCormick said.
“But now, Indigenous people are being triggered by the pandemic. Historically, there’s still that fear of epidemics.”
McCormick is referring to smallpox, which was brought onto Indigenous land by European settlers and devastated entire communities.
Moving forward, McCormick wants to see more resources provided for mental health services for Indigenous people.
“There are too many obstacles in terms of the policies and jurisdictional issues. It really doesn’t get the attention that it should — and that’s the same for mental health (more broadly),” he said.
“It gets a fraction of the overall health spending … yet it has huge financial implications if you ignore it.”
While shedding light on the gaps in Indigenous health care is important, Mushquash would prefer to focus on the resilience of Indigenous communities and the services that have popped up to provide care during this time.
“I’ve seen examples of a lot of Indigenous communities (and organizations) doing very innovative things to help ensure that there’s continuity in care for their patients,” Mushquash said.
“One thing I think (we should try) to include, when we can, is an acknowledgment of the capacity of Indigenous people … have in our communities, our cultures and our traditions.”
“There’s great strengths, great capacity and great opportunity for innovation and wellness in our communities as well.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.
In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.
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