McMaster students seek to understand Indigenous youth mental health

McMaster global health students plan second annual conference to learn about mental health issues affecting youth in Indigenous communities.
McMaster University students will hold their second McMaster Indigenous Health Conference next Saturday, focused on mental health. (MacIHC)

When Neha Malhotra decided to study global health at McMaster, she pictured herself flying somewhere to address health disparities somewhere in the world.

But then a professor challenged a class she was in to think about disparities in Canada, especially focused on  Indigenous communities.

"I was taken aback," she said.

Malhotra, now a third-year student, began learning about historical treatment of health issues in Indigenous communities, like the transportation of thousands of Inuit to places including Hamilton for tuberculosis treatment.

She saw the "violent acculturation and colonialism" showing up in health care, an institution "that is supposed to be equitable."

And so she and a few others planned a conference last year to try to better understand Indigenous health issues. They'll hold their second conference next Saturday, focused on mental health issues and the way Indigenous communities are affected.

"Mental health affects Indigenous communities in a different manner, and our treatment is often framed by a western biomedical approach," she said. "Often we don't consider how different people define mental health and what kinds of services they may want."

Shedding light on the suicide crisis

Malhotra is organizing the conference with classmates Sadiyah Jamal and Hannah Martin, who is herself Indigenous, from Nova Scotia.

She said she has tried to bring "cultural humility" to her planning and research, understanding that she can't live the experience of another person.

"I wanted to shed light in the suicide crisis that's happening in northern communities," Malhotra said.

Malhotra said she expects the response from institutions would be much different "if this was in an urban white community."

(Supplied by the Winter and Fox families)

She said it's important to ask "what mental health even means." For many Indigenous communities, Malhotra said she's learned that looks like "engaging with your community, and your spirituality through a connection with ancestors and nature."

'You must be humble and empathetic'

The day-long conference will feature a keynote panel with youth from the International Indigenous Council, who've been protesting at the Dakota Access Pipeline, about how that experience has been shaping their mental health.

Workshops will feature topics like the state of funding for mental health care, Indigenous elders talking about the diverse ways mental health can be treated and the application of human rights principles to Indigenous communities.

Elders will also be available for support if any of the conference attendees become overwhelmed by any of the topics.

Malhotra is planning to pursue global health studies through a Ph.D. She said she hopes to have an impact on how institutions think of diverse cultures, especially communities grappling with "generations of colonialism."

Inuit patients arrived in Hamilton to be treated for tuberculosis in the middle of the 20th century. (Gerda Selway)

"You must be humble and empathetic," she said. "I don't think that you should be prevented from speaking your mind or being open with people about your assumptions. But the important part is doing it with respect and humility."