What the Mental Health Crisis in Attawapiskat Says about Health Freedom in Canada

The Attawapiskat First Nation made headlines recently when 11 members tried to commit suicide over a weekend in April and 28 members tried to do so throughout March. Shortly after the crisis of 11 suicide attempts blew up on the national news, drawing some much-needed attention to the situation there, 5 more members attempted suicide. Canadians rallied around the First Nation, flooding their mailboxes with letters of hope, inspiration and consolation for the bereaved. The community declared a state of emergency and mental health workers were flown in. However, one month later, the crisis continues and it says a lot about the state of health care and health freedom in Canada today.

Below are some of the observations that can be made about this mental health crisis in Indigenous communities in Canada:

The mental health crisis in Canada is more widespread than Attawapiskat alone but hits vulnerable communities harder. In any given year, one in five people in Canada experiences a mental health problem or illness, with a cost to the economy of well in excess of $50 billion. Only one in three people who experience a mental health problem or illness — and as few as one in four children or youth — report that they have sought and received services and treatment. Of the 4,000 Canadians who die every year as a result of suicide, most were confronting a mental health problem or illness. While these numbers are disturbing enough, it is important to note that First Nations and Indigenous peoples are far more vulnerable to mental health issues because of the legacy of colonialism (and residential schools), social and economic marginalization, and systemic racism. First Nations youth die by suicide about five to six times more often than non-Aboriginal youth. The suicide rates for Inuit are among the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average, and for young Inuit men the rates are 28 times higher.

Drugs are not the answer for the long-term. While pharmaceuticals may be employed in the short term to alleviate the urgency of a healthcare crisis in Indigenous communities, they are simply a band-aid solution to what are deep social ills contributing to the overall mental health of these groups. In fact, it is more like putting a band-aid over a gaping wound that might need surgical attention – it simply won’t solve any problems except to save lives in the immediate future. As such, it becomes exceedingly apparent that social ills related to indigenous communities are a health care issue whether or not the government is willing to recognize this. In fact, continuing to neglect infrastructural issues and social services in indigenous communities is directly correlated with rising mental health issues. The fact that Canadian taxpayers are continuing to pay to have these services available to wider society, but that they are less-than-adequate for Indigenous communities in particular is very disheartening and signifies institutionalized marginalization which may be the real ill that these communities need healing from.

After all of this, it goes without saying that healthcare for First Nations and Indigenous Peoples is inadequate. Access to the most basic medical services is dramatically reduced in these communities, never mind alternative routes that could engage with preventative or traditional medicines. With a legacy of cultural imperialism, the Canadian government has done a lot of work historically to contribute to the forgetting or abolition of traditional indigenous medicine practices and cultural rituals that could inculcate a sense of supportive community in suffering individuals.

On top of all of this, as we have noted elsewhere, Indigenous people often experience appalling racism within the healthcare system. Doctors have been known to refuse to prescribe First Nations patients painkillers, even when they are in severe pain, because they believe their patient is either already abusing drugs, or is likely to get addicted if they are given any pills. In other cases, First Nations people are treated like second-class citizens because they are believed to be homeless or violent, even when this is patently not the case. First Nations and Indigenous people have reported having to return to clinics or ERs multiple times before receiving a diagnosis, even for serious conditions like breast cancer and fractured pelvises. The delayed response of healthcare workers results in the increased severity of the condition, a problem that could have been avoided with early detection and treatment.

Ultimately, reports have stated that a large number of the problems come from inadequate training of healthcare professionals that work on the front lines. Without cultural sensitivity, these workers run the risk of alienating First Nations people seeking treatment.

The government has a responsibility to these communities that continues to be shirked despite considerable public and media support for aiding First Nations and Indigenous peoples suffering from mental health issues collectively or individually. Write your MPs and demand to know how racism against Indigenous and First Nations peoples is being eliminated in the healthcare system. Demand improved services and increased access to traditional healing methods in clinics and hospitals. Ask that issues relating to remote healthcare access be addressed, and stand up for a better healthcare system for all of us.

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