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Ottawa study offers grim look at mental health of aboriginal youth

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Aboriginal youth are nine times more likely to be depressed and three times more likely to think about suicide compared to non-aboriginal youth, according to a report released Friday at the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health.

The My Life, My Wellbeing report, which concludes nearly three years of research, offers grim insight into the lives of aboriginal youth in the Ottawa region and the Champlain Health Integration Network.

The study includes survey results from 310 young people and sought to understand the scope of mental health and addiction issues, the availability of services, and the appropriate response to youth needs.

The research was critical because it provides specific data for the Ottawa region that will allow for a better understanding of the needs here, says Allison Fisher, executive director of the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health.

“That is extremely important, because based on what we know, we can start developing coherent plans that allow us to move forward from here. It’s critical,” she said.

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The report, led by the Wabano Centre, was sponsored by the Champlain LHIN and commissioned by the Champlain Aboriginal Health Circle Forum. The forum represents the more than 43,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis people who live in the Champlain region, including the Pikwàkanagàn and Akwesasne communities.

Fisher said it is time to focus on aboriginal youth because they make up about 50 per cent of native communities across the country. In the Champlain region, 40 per cent are under the age of 25, and 20 per cent are ages 13-24.

The 310 young survey participants expressed a specific desire to work with providers who understand their culture and who can incorporate aboriginal teachings and practices into their services.

Jessica Dinovitzer, the youth leader of the Native Circle at Youth Services Bureau, said she’s pleased with the report because she did not find appropriate help when she was seeking it as a teenager years ago.

“When I first tried looking for help regarding PTSD, it was quite difficult because there wasn’t much offered, but now there’s much more, and here at Wabano, too,” said Dinovitzer, who said she was born into Mohawk-German-Irish-Scottish family and adopted into a Jewish family.

“Native teachings helped me not only connect better with myself, but with others as well, and helped me better understand the four requirements to healing, which are the mental, physical, spiritual and emotional well-being,” she said.

“The fact that they used the methods of our teachings to help us heal and to reinforce our sense of community helped us connect better with each other, too.”

Chantale LeClerc, CEO of Champlain LHIN, said the findings are important for the short- and long-term health strategy for the region and will remain a priority for the network.

“We want to make sure that the work we’re doing is appropriate for aboriginal youth and it truly meets their needs in terms of respecting their culture and their identity,” LeClerc said.

Champlain LHIN has already been acting on some of the study’s recommendations, such as creating drop-in counselling for youth at the Wabano centre, as well as the permanent position of a “navigator” who will help aboriginal youth find, navigate, and access services in a culturally sensitive way when they have a mental health and/or an addiction issue.

“We’ll see if we can grow this in other parts of our region, which will depend on how this navigator and drop-in counselling are received and the impacts they’re able to have,” she said.

Fisher said she thinks the biggest challenge is building bridges between aboriginal and non-aboriginal agencies, but said the challenge should be viewed as a journey.

“There should be recognition that we don’t know everything and we have learning to do, but at least we begin that journey together. I think when you can do that, you’re off to a good start. This report now allows us to have that much-needed frank conversation” she said.

Highlights from the study

2
The number of times more likely aboriginal youth are to face suicidal ideation compared to youth overall in Ottawa (16.4 per cent vs eight per cent)

3/10
Aboriginal youth who have been victims of mental or emotional abuse

2/10
have been victims of bullying

9 the number of times more likely aboriginal youth are to face depression in Canada (55 per cent vs. 6.5 per cent

29% substance abuse among young aboriginals, compared to 13 per cent non-aboriginal youth in Canada

40% of aboriginal youth who are in elementary, middle or high school, 33 per cent are in college or university, while the remainder are not enrolled in school

60% of respondents who said the most important characteristics in a mental health / addictions provider was the understanding of aboriginal approaches, the use of different aboriginal teachings and practices, and the involvement of elders in services and programs.