Contributing to the mental health of First Nation men
Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (5), p. 36-37
The following article is based on personal experience and the results of interviews with First Nation men. These individuals comprise staff with Stó:lo Nation, as well as consumers of mental health services offered through Stó:lo Nation Health Services and other community mental health centres. Specific clients are not referred to by their actual names to protect anonymity and the privacy of their families and communities.
“The Men’s Wellness Gathering saved my life,” commented Bill, a First Nation band member. He was referring to a gathering of 40 Aboriginal men from various communities throughout BC. This was the eighth year of such a gathering. Sponsored by Stó:lo Nation Health, it is held annually in the fall at various locations throughout the Fraser Valley.
To many, this gathering, which specifically addresses the mental health and wellness needs of Aboriginal men, has become one of the most significant programs offered by the Stó:lo Nation.
The planning committee, chaired by health director Brian Williams, includes men from Stó:lo Nation Health, Community Development, Xyolhemeylh Child and Family Services and the Indian Residential School Survivors Society. The various gathering topics throughout the years have included addictions, residential school issues, mental health, family and relationships. Activities include guest speakers, healing circles, sweat lodges, drum making, carving, canoeing, slahal games, drumming and singing, storytelling and nature walks. This year’s gathering, held at a conference centre called Sts’ailes Lhawathet Lalem (Chehalis Healing House) on Chehalis First Nation land, focused on the impact of the residential school experience on the individual and family.
On the third day of this most recent gathering, depression and anxiety screening was offered to the participants and staff. This screening was administered by me and two of Stó:lo Nation’s addiction prevention counsellors, Lawrence Roberts and Pat Walsh. This was under the auspices of the annual, provincial Beyond the Blues: Depression Anxiety Screening and Education Day project of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information (for more information, see www. heretohelp.bc.ca/events.)
At first we weren’t sure how the screening would be received, but the response was overwhelming. The context of the gathering had created a sense of safety; it was a good place to focus on emotional well-being. Staff, clinicians and participants all lived, shared meals and participated in activities together, which strengthened relationships and resulted in a high level of trust. Individual screening interviews went longer than expected as the men opened up and talked about their lives in ways they hadn’t done before.
When discussing the screening in a later interview, Lawrence (counsellor and Tzeachten First Nation member) mentioned, “Men felt safe, and the atmosphere of openness created an interest to learn more about themselves. The screening and interview provided a good mirror or reflection and gave extra one-on-one attention. This individual sharing, in turn, helped them gain confidence to share in the larger circles and gave a sense of hope knowing that help and support is available.”
Lawrence went on to comment that the assessments seem to be designed for a primarily non-First Nation target group, so it may be more difficult to get an accurate assessment. Some First Nation individuals may score high on the depression/anxiety scale, but are nevertheless functioning well because they have supports. These supports are primarily cultural and spiritual in nature and involve traditional methods of processing unresolved issues. They include healing/talking circles, prayer, sweat lodges, ceremonies, gatherings, and work with spiritual healers.
In addition to traditional methods, other therapies also provide ongoing support. Bill, who admitted to feeling depressed and suicidal prior to the gathering, completed the screening and interview. He shared this experience: “After, Lawrence came to my house and offered more counselling by a therapist. I was feeling better after the gathering, but didn’t want a relapse so I agreed. Seeing Terry since October has really helped me get emotionally stronger…helped me and my family.”
When Aboriginal men discuss addiction, substance misuse and mental health issues, the conversation always moves to the sources of these problems: identity issues, lack of purpose, little sense of belonging and difficulty communicating emotions.
Lawrence noted that many problems facing Aboriginal men are results of the residential school experience, both directly and generationally. Many men struggle with feelings of isolation; they feel that they just don’t “fit” anywhere. They experience difficulty dealing with emotions, communicating, and nurturing healthy relationships. They have difficulty admitting problems in general and don’t want to appear weak.
Bill agreed that a challenge facing Aboriginal men is “talking about it…for years we never talked about it—emotional issues. One main reason men use and abuse, and experience depression and suicidal thoughts, is the inability to deal with past issues. These are issues related to family and effects the residential school had on parents.”
Leslie Williams, the post-secondary education coordinator with Stó:lo Nation, is from Skwah First Nation in Chilliwack. He agreed that much of the addiction and other mental health issues are related to historical family issues and problems in present relationships. “They don’t know who they are and where they come from. Many who were separated from parents, family, culture, language and community and placed in residential schools or non-Native foster homes don’t know their identity, roles, gifts, spiritual and cultural values; don’t know where they belong and have little knowledge about how to find out. Fear holds many men back.”
Gatherings such as the Men’s Wellness create a good place for men to begin their healing journey. Such places are important for Aboriginal men because they provide an opportunity for the men to face their fears in a safe atmosphere. They can look at the deeper issues that may have contributed to addictions and other mental health problems.
John, who has attended for four years straight, explained, “Listening and sharing are the keys. For many men, it is the first time they have been able to share or talk about the ‘real’ life story beyond just surface stuff— jobs, money, hunting, fishing, cars, trucks and other things. Part of healing is talking about it, grieving it and letting it go…don’t carry it. The ultimate thing is to go back and feel it in a safe environment, with others who talk about and share the same…gives the ability to deal with it in a good way.”
Lawrence, who has been on the planning committee for the last five years, agreed with John and added, “The Gathering helps men get in touch with themselves and increases pride and sense of value through discovery of self, identity and culture. It seems to always go back to self-esteem and self-respect. This builds up courage to face the difficult issues in life. I’ve seen this increase in courage for those who keep coming back. The being together as a group creates a family atmosphere as we grow and bond together. Spending time together doing different activities creates this bond and trust—drumming, singing, drum making, carving, canoeing, healing circles, nature walks, sweats, speaking with elders, meals together, workshop and keynote speakers, storytelling and laughter.”
Leslie presently works with young men who come for education support. “Many have no idea who their family is or who they are connected to, and although they may be able to achieve academically, an inner emptiness remains,” stated Les. He went on to discuss the work that is accomplished at the gatherings: “New connections and ‘family’ are made at these gatherings. Men leave stronger, with a sense of mutual responsibility. They become part of each other. The circle is like family and the sense of common experience gives strength and hope.”
Strength and hope is the common message I hear from Aboriginal men who attend men’s healing gatherings. This is summarized by the Men’s Wellness Gathering logo—the Wellness Salmon, drawn in 2000 by Craig Ned, a Stó:lo artist and carver from Sumas First Nation.
The salmon represents a continuous striving and succeeding against all difficulties. The three faces represent the faces of Aboriginal men ‘getting better.’ The first one is sad and depressed, the second one is feeling better, and the last one represents a happy man. The inspiration for the last face comes from the ‘winning’ symbol used in the First Nation game of slahal.
Within Aboriginal communities, healing involves balance: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Basic to this healing are elements of safety, responsibility, respect and cooperation. The Men’s Wellness Gathering and other healing gatherings for men provide many of these elements and an opportunity to address deep issues of identity, purpose and belonging.
About the Author
Brian is an Aboriginal mental health liaison worker employed by Stó:lo Nation Health Services in Chilliwack, which serves First Nations, Metis and Inuit individuals within the Fraser Health Authority. Brian has a BA in counselling and a Community Mental Health Certificate from Douglas College. He is the father of three children who are members of the Tzeachten First Nation