London

New collaboration hopes to improve mental health care for Indigenous people

Biigajiiskaan Indigenous Pathways to Mental Wellness strives to provide culturally safe and specialized care for Indigenous people with serious mental illness, addictions and concurrent disorders. 

Traditional ways will be integrated with modern mental health care

The Biigajiiskaan program, a collaboration between Atlohsa Family Healing Services and St. Joseph's Health Care, gives individuals access to Indigenous practices, like ceremony, drum circles and smudging. Some of the elements of these practices are seen in this photo, taken at Atlohsa's Resting Space in downtown London. (Alana Lees/Resting Space)

A new program and partnership between Atlohsa Family Healing Services and St. Joseph's Health wants to improve Indigenous peoples' experiences with mental health services in the region.

Announced Wednesday, Biigajiiskaan Indigenous Pathways to Mental Wellness will provide culturally safe and specialized care for Indigenous people with serious mental illness, addictions and concurrent disorders. It will work on a referral basis. 

Raymond Deleary, executive director of Atlohsa Family Healing Services, said they've already started to connect with people both inside and outside the hospital setting. 

"We feel like it's already made quite a bit of an impact," he said. "People who traditionally have been stigmatized in receiving hospital support and also dealing with racism and inequalities and services will feel much more inclined to reach out for the support they need in the moment."

One feature of the program is a healing space at Parkwood Institute. There's also an Indigenous-led mobile outreach team, the opportunity for traditional Indigenous practices like healing circles, ceremony, smudging and drum circles, and education opportunities for health care workers. 

The Biigajiiskaan team also has a knowledge carrier, which Deleary said is very unique in a hospital setting. 

"We lean on our knowledge carriers, our elders, because they are our healers, our medicine people. These are people with the most amount of wisdom, because they've walked on this earth the longest, and so we've incorporated that into the team."

Suicide rates 5x higher for Indigenous youth

Atlohsa and St. Joseph's are collaborating on the program in the spirit of Truth and Reconciliation, according to a joint media release that also acknowledges the history of colonization and institutional trauma that has led to the loss of language, culture and a sense of safety and community. 

Jodi Younger, the vice president of patient care and quality at St. Joseph's, said in a statement that there's an urgent need for traditional healing programs. 

"We know that the rate of mental illness and addictions among Indigenous people is more than double that of non-Indigenous individuals in Canada … and suicide rates among Indigenous youths are five times higher."

The program's services are available to inpatients, outpatients and community outreach clients of St. Joseph's Mental Health Care Program. People across Middlesex-London and St. Thomas-Elgin can also be referred to the program through Atlohsa.

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