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Meeting the challenges of Aboriginal mental health

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun

"When rabbits fly" is the intriguing name for an upcoming workshop on aboriginal mental health designed to teach therapists, social workers and others how to better understand their aboriginal clients so they can diagnose and treat them effectively.
Native youth worker Wendy Stewart says her culture's approach to mental health is very different from the individualistic mentality of mainstream society. "It's everone's problem, so they work together to fix it."

The name sounds like it comes from native lore. Instead, it originated from an off-the-cuff comment by a researcher. She was frustrated by the way some therapists were mistreating their aboriginal clients. When will they learn better? "When rabbits fly," she quipped.

Today, a group of health professionals is putting together an educational workshop that may not teach rabbits to fly, but it will go a long way toward helping non-native therapists understand the unique aboriginal mindset, culture and world-view.

"Studies have shown that half of aboriginal clients drop out of therapy after one session," says Megan Cahoon, a family therapist based near Kincardine, Ont., who is one of the event organizers. "They figure out quickly that they're not going to get what they need."

Cahoon experienced this first hand. She was working with a native person and realized her extensive education wasn't helping her understand her client. She then met Wendy Stewart, a native youth worker from Tyendinaga First Nation.

"She became my consultant, and then I went to the library to find more books about ways of counselling aboriginal people. I was horrified at what I didn't find," Cahoon says.

Why is it that native clients need a different approach? Cahoon says it's because the aboriginal world-view is different from the mainstream. In white society there's an emphasis on the self, while natives think in terms of family and community.

Wendy Stewart illustrates how, for aboriginal clients, the mainstream accent on "the self" is barking up the wrong tree.

"In white society, problems are seen to be the person's problem. For us, any problem is a societal problem. Traditionally, if someone was troubled, an elder would invite them to go out berry picking and they would chat," she says.

"Then the elder would tell them a story about nature that would help them understand the problem. Our stories teach us about human behaviour. It's very non-interfering. It's not 'Hey pal. You have a problem!' It's everyone's problem, so they work together to fix it. "

Ignorance about native culture can also lead to misdiagnosis, according to Stewart. She says that often native people are diagnosed as having mental health problems simply because non-native therapists don't understand the way they think.

"Mental health professionals look at the diagnostic statistic manual and they fit us into categories without realising that we have a totally different world view," Stewart says. "So native people may be told they have a personality disorder when they don't have one at all. They could be suffering trauma, but they're not necessarily mentally ill."

Many working with native clients aren't aware of their turbulent history. For years, it was government policy to take native children out of their families and place them in residential homes in order to assimilate into mainstream culture.

"When the Europeans came over, there were about 150 million aboriginal people in this country with languages and cultures of their own," Cahoon says. "Today, we're down to less than 2 million. Therapists working with native clients should know this stuff."

There's a lot to learn. But the goal of the two-day workshop is to give mental health practitioners enough information to help them work with native clients. "Essentially, we want to help practitioners put on another set of skin," Cahoon says.

For more information and the date of the workshop, please email Megan at

(Susan Poizner ( is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)

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