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Mental Health

Depression: A Guide for Aboriginal People


Author: Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division


Depression affects your mood—the way you feel. It’s normal to feel sad or upset from time to time. Depression is more than just a bad day.

It’s a mental illness that makes it hard to go about your daily life and do things you enjoy. It lasts for a long time and it can have a big impact on your life.

Depression affects all cultures. It affects people on reserve and off reserve, in rural communities or large cities.

What causes depression?

Depression may be caused by many different things. Some factors that may contribute to depression or make depression worse include:

  • Changes in the brain

  • Chronic physical illness like diabetes or heart disease

  • Family history of depression or other mental illnesses

  • Experiences of racism

  • History of trauma or abuses, such as the residential school system

  • Trauma going on right now or other distressing events in your life

  • Losing or feeling disconnected from culture, language, spiritual beliefs, traditions, ways of living, or other important parts of your identity

  • Health of the community—such as job opportunities, access to services and resources, support networks, living conditions, and quality of life

  • Problems with alcohol or other drugs

What are the symptoms of depression?

Everyone has their own experience of depression, but common symptoms include:

  • Feeling down, sad, or hopeless much of the time

  • Feeling like a failure, feeling unreasonably guilty, or blaming yourself for things you can’t control

  • Feeling irritable, angry, or on edge—even over minor problems

  • Feeling very tired much of the time

  • Losing interest in things you usually enjoy

  • Having a hard time concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things

  • Changes in your sleep patterns—sleeping a lot more or a lot less than usual

  • Changes in your eating patterns—eating a lot more or a lot less than usual

  • Physical complaints like headaches or stomach aches

  • Having thoughts of ending your life or hurting yourself

Can depression be treated?

Yes, depression is very treatable. Depression is usually treated with counselling, medicine, or a combination of medicine and counselling. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about the medicine that you are prescribed. Tell your doctor about other treatments you are using, including herbs. For less severe depression, counselling may be all that’s needed. Many people worry about talking to a doctor about a mental health problem. You can find tips on working with doctors at

A big part of recovery is finding healthy balance. Good support from family, friends, Elders, faith communities, or support groups can make a big difference. There are many things you can try on your own, too. Small changes like getting enough sleep, eating well, connecting to nature, and regular exercise can really help. Pay attention to how you use alcohol or other drugs, and talk to your doctor or health care provider if you’re having a hard time managing substance use. If you are interested in traditional healing practices, reach out to your community for suggestions and advice.

Remember that this medical way of thinking about depression is not the only way to understand your experiences. Seek advice from people you respect—they may have perspectives or ideas that help you on your own journey.

How can family and friends help?

Ask your loved one how you can help. We often think of helping by listening and offering emotional support. This is important, but there are also practical ways we can support someone we love. Practical help like help with caregiving, help with chores around the house, or help preparing meals can be just as powerful.

Supporting someone who is experiencing depression can be hard at times. Seek help for yourself if you need it—support groups for family members and friends can be very helpful.

If you think you or someone you care about is experiencing depression, it’s important to seek help. If you ever hear or suspect a loved one wants to harm themself, seek help right away.

Aboriginal Crisis Line1-800-588-8717. This crisis line offers help and support for anyone in BC and it is available day and night every day. You can also access help specifically for adults and Elders or children and youth by calling the same phone number. This crisis line is offered in partnership with the First Nations Health Authority and KUU-US Crisis Response Services.

Native Youth Crisis Hotline1-877-209-1266. Available day and night, throughout Canada.

BC Mental Health Support Line310-6789 (no area coded needed). They offer confidential help and support at any time of day or night.

Your family doctor or community health nurse—They can see what might be contributing to the problem, and they can refer you to special services.

Your Band, Tribal Council, Friendship Centre or other organization—They may offer mental health services and programs.

The Mood Disorders Association of BC—604-873-0103 or They offer support, education, and treatment programs for mood disorders like depression, and they have a network of support groups around BC.

Bounce Back: Reclaim Your Bounce Back is a program that teaches you skills to help you manage low mood, stress, anxiety, and other problems.

Strengthening Families Together - First Nations Edition—A program from the BC Schizophrenia Society to help families dealing with any mental illness. Visit or call 1-888-888-0029.

The artwork in this brochure was created by Darren Blaney.

This brochure is adapted from work by the First Nations Mental Health Program Vancouver Community Mental Health Services – Vancouver Coastal Health. We would like to gratefully acknowledge their leadership in developing tailored materials for Aboriginal people.


About the author

cmha bc logo

The Canadian Mental Health Association promotes the mental health of all and supports the resilience and recovery of people experiencing a mental illness through public education, community-based research, advocacy, and direct services. Visit


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