Surviving the Fall

DVD uses storytelling, the Aboriginal way of transmitting knowledge, to educate about reproductive mental health

Marie Nightingale

Reprinted from "Aboriginal People" issue of Visions Journal, 2008, 5 (1), p. 29-30

A young mother-to-be tells of anxiously watching the screen during her ultrasound—tears quickly form and stream down her cheeks as she realizes her baby’s heart is no longer beating.

Another young woman speaks of the early days with her new baby: “It should have been the happiest time of my life. But I cried all the time—even when I did the laundry. I always felt alone, even when I was in a room full of my family—people who loved me.”

“I would be driving along in my car and suddenly break out in tears for no reason. It was the strangest time. I felt that if I drove my car over the edge, then everything would be over—all the pain and the empty feelings I had,” said another young woman.

These personal stories are among those courageously shared by six young Aboriginal women from the Stó:lō Territory, and their families. They’ve been captured on film for a new DVD, Aboriginal Journeys in Mental Health—Surviving the Fall.

The stories speak to the grief and loss of miscarriage and stillbirth and of the loneliness and isolation experienced with perinatal or postpartum depression—depression during pregnancy or following the birth of a child. The stories speak to the mental and emotional struggles, the pain, the frustrations and the sadness. They also speak, to the recovery and hope gained from reaching out for help.

And in the telling, their emotional and heartfelt words continue an ancient tradition of the Aboriginal people—to share learning and wisdom through stories passed on through the generations.
“In the Aboriginal culture, learning is relational,” says Brian Muth. Muth, a former mental health liaison for the Stó:lō Nation Health Services, is Fraser Health’s Aboriginal community engagement coordinator and a DVD project leader. “It comes from connections with others, from listening to stories and attending gatherings. This has been the way of the Aboriginal people since earliest times.”

Fraser Health's Aboriginal Health Services identifier represents a culturally inclusive and caring organization. The hummingbird symbolizes health; the Métis flag and the Inuit Inukshuk represent the diversity of our Aboriginal population. The medicine wheel symbolizes balance and represents the four elements of life including mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health.  The drum represents the heart beat of the Aboriginal Nation. Perinatal depression—serious health consequences for mother and child

Alongside the stories offered by these women are messages from public health and mental health care providers and health care providers who work with the Aboriginal population. One of these providers is Dr. Shaila Misri, director of Reproductive Mental Health at BC Women’s Hospital and a provincial expert in this field.

“In 1895, a French psychiatrist first made the connection between the post-partum (perinatal) period and insanity,” Dr. Misri says in the DVD, stressing the increased understanding that has developed since that time. “That journey has been important in that at least today, woman no longer are dismissed because they’re mentally ill when they become mothers.”

Depression is the leading cause of disability for women in their childbearing years.1 As many as one in five women in BC may experience depression related to pregnancy and childbirth.1 And research shows that perinatal depression can seriously affect the health of both mother and child and, if left untreated, can lead to chronic depression.1

“It is absolutely our responsibility to not only be able to diagnose and treat, but to understand that these women are suffering—and not because it is their choice . . . We must be sympathetic, understanding, cater to their needs and give them as much support in the community as possible,” she adds.

Toward the best journey possible for mothers-to-be

This DVD is one step toward achieving the goal of a recently developed Perinatal Depression Strategy. That goal is to ensure every pregnant woman in the Fraser Health region has the best journey possible from the onset of her pregnancy to the year after the birth of her child.

A steering committee made up of representatives from Fraser Health services and the Ministry for Children and Family Development, as well as independent midwives, worked together to develop the strategy. Their focus was on an approach to perinatal depression that would involve every related health professional. The strategy includes an education and awareness program. It also includes an early identification, screening and treatment plan for pregnant and early parenting women in the Fraser Health region who experience symptoms of perinatal depression.

The partners involved in the DVD project include Fraser Health’s Health Promotion and Prevention, Fraser Health’s Mental Health and Addiction Services, Stó:lō Nation Health Services and Bear Image Productions.

Surviving the Fall was developed to serve as a culturally sensitive educational tool for reaching out to the Aboriginal population, and to public health, mental health and health care providers who work with the Aboriginal population.

“And,” says Muth, “in using the cultural tradition of storytelling, I believe we have captured a distinctiveness brought from the lived experience that is extremely powerful in supporting, educating and inspiring others”

The documentary focuses on holistic wellness. In doing so, it closely aligns with the Aboriginal concept of the medicine wheel—that wellness comes when the four areas of spirit, mind, body and emotion are in balance. This concept is also embraced by the Mental Health, Health Promotion and Prevention and Aboriginal Health Services of the Fraser Health region.

Leslie Schroeder, of the Tzeachten-Stó:lō Nation, is project director for Fraser Health’s Aboriginal Health Services. She believes the DVD is extremely valuable. “It will help people in many ways by building greater understanding of the mental health challenges associated with pregnancy and childbirth, promoting early identification of symptoms, and encouraging women to be pro-active about their health and wellness,” she says.

“In our culture, traditionally, women are seen as the strong ones—the ones who have the babies, take care of families—the ones to look up to,” says Schroeder. “So it is not surprising that when a woman loses a baby during pregnancy, or experiences depression in relation to her pregnancy or childbirth, that she may feel somewhat inadequate and reluctant to reach out for help.”

“By providing glimpses into their personal experiences, these women and their families have also shared very powerful messages to others about the importance of moving beyond the stigma to speak out about what you’re feeling, seeking support and the healing that can take place as a result,” she adds.

“Their words will help others see that it’s okay to feel this way and they’re not alone.”
The DVD also speaks to the importance of weaving mainstream medicine and practices with traditional Aboriginal healing. Through the words of the women and their families, as well as public health, mental health and Aboriginal care providers, the message is clear—a combination of both the conventional and the traditional can bring a stronger network of support.

Copies of Aboriginal Journeys in Mental Health—Surviving the Fall are available through Leslie Schroeder at Fraser Health. Call, in Abbotsford, 604-851-3087.

 
About the author

Marie is a Senior Communications Consultant with Fraser Health’s Communications and Public Affairs Department

Footnote:
  1. BC Reproductive Mental Health Program, BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre. (2006). Addressing perinatal depression: A framework for BC’s health authorities. www.health.gov.bc.ca/library/publications/year/2006/MHA_PerinatalDepression.pdf.

 

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