Aboriginal youth suicide rates addressed using art

A research project at the First Nations University of Canada shows a tie between art, mental wellness, and suicide reduction.

Regina-based research project looks to improve well-being of youth on reserves

New research coming out of First Nations University of Canada is reaffirming the healing power of art. 

The Acting Out, But in a Good Way project is showing that producing art can have a big impact on mental health in First Nations communities. It may even prevent suicide. 

Benjamin Ironstand is a research assistant with the program. He and other researchers create visual art and drama classes for First Nations youth on reserves. They then interview the participants about the experience and analyze the data. 

Benjamin Ironstand and Aisha O'Watch hold up a piece of art produced in the Acting Out, But in a Good Way project, which seeks to bring art classes to reserves. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

So far, Ironstand says the results have been very positive. 

"With the arts, we believe and we're finding that it gives students a voice," Ironstand said. 

"It gives them a way to express their feelings and their stories and who they are." 

When the team of researchers analyze their interviews, they look for evidence of certain factors that could help with well-being, such as confidence-building, and a sense of identity and belonging. 

By increasing well-being through art, the team is looking to help reduce suicide rates.

The project is funded under a suicide prevention grant for aboriginal youth. The Canadian Institute of Child Health says aboriginal young people are five to six times more likely to commit suicide than other youth.

Real-life impacts

Ironstand believes that because the instructors and researchers involved with the project are also aboriginal people, they are able to better identify with the young people and become role models for them.

Aisha O'Watch agrees. 

O'Watch, who grew up on Carry the Kettle First Nation, was a participant in the program. She said she's felt the effects of suicide in her community.

"Growing up, all of that impact did affect me. Especially now that I'm older. It's still happening to our youth," O'Watch said. 

Now O'Watch is a first-year science student at the FNUC and is hoping to go into medicine. She says the program strongly influenced her.

"Them showing me a way to express myself was important to me. Especially them being indigenous, gave me a sense of belonging," she said. 

Ironstand and his team are continuing to pore through stacks of interview papers for analysis, and are working on a number of research papers. 

He said in the end, he hopes the research helps to convince the government to pay for more art programs for aboriginal youth.