Protective factors that support mental well-being
Reprinted from "Culture" issue of Visions Journal, 2014, 9 (4), p. 20
Connecting the Dots (CTD) is a four-year community mobilization pilot project that aims to promote mental health for urban Aboriginal families and youth. CTD follows the Communities That Care model, which uses a proven, community-change process for reducing youth violence, alcohol and tobacco use, and delinquency (see www.communitiesthatcare.net).
This approach has the community identify its main risk and protective factors, then follow up with evidence-based practices to strengthen the protective factors and reduce risk factors. These interventions are then evaluated, either in the form of written surveys, questionnaires or focus groups, including questions specific to mental health promotion. CTD has also contracted with the University of Northern British Columbia to be evaluated throughout the project by an assistant professor, who is also the Aboriginal Education coordinator. Practices will be adjusted, if necessary, to ensure they are effective.
In our community, Quesnel and the surrounding area, representatives from non-profit health service organizations, the school district, Ministry of Children and Family Development, Northern Health, University of Northern BC, the local college, non-profit Aboriginal organizations, local First Nation bands including the Elders, and youth within the school district have come together. The main protective factors identified by this group are attachment, or strong connections between children, parents and Elders; healthy parenting; and culture. The main risk factor identified was a lack of trust between Aboriginal people and service providers.
To address these risk and protective factors, we are implementing family/culture camps, parenting/traditional teaching modules and trust building circles. These interventions were identified by the project’s community board and key leaders working group, consisting of all those listed above except the youth. This group’s role is to provide insight and guidance for each CTD step, to support project sustainability by opening doors to funding sources, and to ensure that interventions and processes are aligned with the values and rights of the Aboriginal people.
It has been the consistent commitment from, and wisdom of, our local Elders through the Elders Guiding Circle, however, that has fine-tuned these interventions. The Elders accurately reflect the needs of their people and recommend appropriate tribal best practices to support mental health and bring balance and harmony back into people’s lives.
The Elders have stressed the importance of learning one’s culture, including traditional ceremonies, language and healing practices. Reclaiming culture into the lives of the children, youth, parents and Elders has health benefits on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels. It builds individual strength, a sense of belonging with self and community, resilience and pride. Culture not only supports one’s values and beliefs, but more importantly, one’s identity.
In August 2013 we held our first family/culture camp called The Future Is Now—Break the Cycle Gathering. Elders supported the following teachings to be part of the first camp: rites of passage, medicinal plants and their healing properties, the traditional game of lahal, traditional drumming and singing, a healing circle led by a traditional teacher, storytelling by the fire, horseback riding, fishing, a presentation and discussion on healthy parenting, a motivational speaker on overcoming life’s challenges, swimming, a sweat lodge for the adults/Elders, and morning prayers, to name a few.
People attending the camp, from infant to Elder, were not only reclaiming their culture, but connecting with the people they love and care about. Being accepted and bonding with family, Elders and friends creates a base of secure attachment, which is a significant protective factor supporting mental health. Health benefits are more probable when people marinate in a comfortable environment that supports their worldviews, surrounded by others who genuinely care, accept and respect who they are. Their self-esteem is more likely to increase, and they tend to make healthier life choices. They are less likely to misuse substances such as drugs and alcohol, less likely to be violent and more apt to contribute to society in a positive manner.1
Here are some responses from people who attended the family camp when asked what they enjoyed most about the camp: “People getting together.” “I enjoyed the children being happy.” “The sweat was great; we need more of that—happy children, happy people.” “Gathering of other people, children and all nations.” “Relaxing and quiet being in nature; so nice, no TV and video games.” “Staying sober, walking trails and fishing.” “Being together and bonding with family.” “Being together with family and friends like we did a long time ago.”
Family/culture camps, however, only happen once or twice a year, so are only one piece of the puzzle for our community’s well-being. In order to address mental health effectively, it’s important to have consistent, ongoing support around parenting, attachment, trust and culture.
To address our risk of a lack of trust between Aboriginal people and service providers, CTD has held two trust building circles (TBC) and will continue holding them four times a year. The TBC participants are a healthy mix of Aboriginal people and service providers (e.g., First Nations support workers, school counsellors, support workers from MCFD, mental health and addiction counsellors) who are working together to help Aboriginal people feel safer using services to support their mental health. Trust is a key ingredient in the healing process.
Our last intervention, intended to provide consistent support addressing our main protective factors of parenting, attachment and culture, just began in February 2014. It’s a monthly half-day module where the Aboriginal community comes together to learn parenting skills and tools, then a traditional teaching. The culture’s worldviews, values and beliefs are built on the seven teachings of truth, wisdom, love, honesty, respect, courage and humility, which have been instilled in the culture for thousands of years. They provide balance and harmony within the community and families, and help build a sense of empowerment within the community and individuals.
While Aboriginal people have been encouraged over the years to participate in many programs and services to support their health, it’s exciting to experience that, with the insight and guidance from the Elders, ‘dots are being connected.’ Elders within the four local First Nation bands in Quesnel are communicating, sharing stories and building relationships with Elders and parents they hadn’t previously had relationships with. Parents are encouraging their children more to attend and participate in cultural activities and events. Elders are becoming more comfortable sharing their truth and concerns about the needs of their people with local service providers.
Genuine connections are being made. This has created a positive shift in mental well-being for the people in our community today and for future generations.
About the author
Lanny has two beautiful children, Colton and Tara. He’s a registered psychiatric nurse and coordinates the Connecting the Dots* project at the Quesnel Tillicum Society. Lanny also chairs the Quesnel Mental Health Advisory Committee and sits on parenting and child service boards. He loves the outdoors and helping people
*Connecting the Dots is funded in 3 BC communities by the Public Health Agency of Canada. Provincial coordination is led by CMHA BC Division and the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres. For more information, visit www.cmha.bc.ca/connectingthedots
- Simard, E. & Blight, S. (2011). Developing a culturally restorative approach to Aboriginal child and youth development: Transition to adulthood. First Peoples Child and Family Review, 6(1), 28-55