Building mental wellness through community-driven approaches
Research in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities in Canada is evolving rapidly, as Indigenous communities are mobilizing to develop culturally appropriate research approaches. Amid this changing landscape, CAMH researchers and Indigenous communities are creating research models that are having visible impacts on mental wellness within communities.
At the core of these models is collaboration in its fullest sense, involving meaningful, respectful engagement with the community at every step, says Dr. Samantha Wells. She and Dr. Julie George, of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, are leading an initiative that is building relationships and co-developing research and wellness strategies in five First Nations. CAMH’s Aboriginal Engagement and Outreach team, led by Dr. Renee Linklater, plays a pivotal role in establishing strong relationships with these communities, and in providing guidance, by Indigenous research ethics expert Julie Bull, for ethically sound data-sharing between CAMH and participating communities.
Ensuring that research has direct benefits for communities is critical. Important impacts are already evident. These include the creation of new mental health and substance use services and a sacred healing space in Kettle and Stony Point, guided by the men of the First Nation who took part in the research. In the North, Dr. Allison Crawford’s work with the Arctic Council and the Inuit Circumpolar Council is engaging Inuit and Sámi youth and communities in suicide prevention.
Working from a strengths-based perspective, all this research uses innovative, highly participatory approaches. Digital storytelling supports the sharing of experience among Elders and Inuit community members. With Photovoice, community participants take photos as a way to unearth experiences, needs and strengths to achieve wellness.
These projects are building research capacity within Indigenous communities, paving a path for future research that is both community-driven and initiated from the ground up within the community.
A timeline of collaborative impacts on mental wellness in Indigenous communities
The beginnings of a new research model
A CAMH mobile lab study that begins in 2011 leads to community-driven collaborations between CAMH researchers and Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, and Aamjiwnaang First Nation. The project identifies community needs related to mental health, substance use and violence. The findings are later used to develop wellness strategies in both communities.
Bolstering community services
Based on the mobile lab study, boys’ and men’s mental health is identified as the priority in Kettle and Stony Point. A participatory action research project leads to new mental health and substance use services, and the creation of an outdoor sacred healing space, with a sweat lodge, tipi and food and medicine garden—all led by the men who took part in the research.
Building on the Arctic strategy, a new research project is engaging Indigenous youth across the circumpolar north, using digital storytelling to surface ideas for building strengths and resilience. The research will inform suicide prevention strategies. Youth from Canada, Alaska, Finland and Greenland are involved.
Spreading the co-creation model
Expanding on the model developed from earlier projects, an initiative launched in 2018 will identify community needs and strengths related to mental health in five First Nations. Participatory action research will be used to develop wellness strategies within communities, such as addressing anxiety and depression among youth in Aamjiwnaang First Nation. The project will also develop recommendations for strengths-based services.
The future: New collaborations
Community-driven models are advancing knowledge and enhancing wellness in new areas: understanding mental health and wellness among the Innu in two communities in Labrador; reducing high rates of commercial tobacco smoking among Indigenous peoples in 13 communities across Ontario; and understanding the impacts of cannabis legalization in Indigenous communities across Canada.
Signaling shifts toward highly collaborative research
First Nations–developed research principles
In 1998, new First Nations–developed research principles outline a shift in how this research should be conducted. The First Nations Information Governance Centre’s principles of ownership, control, access and possession (OCAP) state that First Nations communities control information collected in their communities. The principles underscore that research must be conducted not only in Indigenous communities, but with Indigenous communities.
Changes in federal research policy
In 2010, the federal policy governing research also ushers in changes in how research involving First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples takes place across Canada. A key requirement is that researchers must engage with and obtain approval from Indigenous communities to conduct research before any research begins.
Growing community mobilization
In the last 10 years, Indigenous communities are increasingly creating approaches to conducting research within their communities, developing research processes and rigorous structures to review and approve proposals. All of these changes are promoting highly collaborative research models.
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