International experts talk Indigenous mental health approaches at Toronto symposium

Mental health professionals should make room for cultural approaches when treating Indigenous people, says one doctor attending a a Global Indigenous Mental Health Symposium in Toronto.

'Cultural space needed' in some mental health areas, says Maori doctor

Dr. Kahu McClintock from New Zealand, right, with her daughter Rachel McClintock. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

Mental health professionals should make room for cultural approaches when treating Indigenous people, says one doctor attending a a Global Indigenous Mental Health Symposium in Toronto.

Approximately 20 panellists from every continent came together at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto Wednesday to share their findings regarding approaches to Indigenous mental health and wellbeing.

"We have an understanding that clinical can only do so much and there are areas that cannot have an effect because there's a cultural space needed," said Dr. Kahu McClintock, who is Maori from New Zealand.

Bringing together knowledge holders and professionals from across the globe is important because many Indigenous people across the world have similarities in cultural and historical experiences, said McClintock.

"Our connections are the same in terms of our lands are important, our waters, our rivers, our mountains, our language and our culture. They are the essence of who we are and must be incorporated or used in terms of approaches that will bring wellness."

Dr. Masood Zangeneh and Dr. David Danto from the University of Guelph-Humber, organizers of the Global Indigenous Mental Health Symposium held in Toronto. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

Dr. David Danto, program head of the University of Guelph-Humber's psychology program, was one of the organizers of the symposium.

"Working with Indigenous clients, I enlisted the help of an Elder and started to familiarize myself or acquaint myself with some of the contextual issues of why we see some discrepant mental health outcomes in some communities," said Danto.

All of the representatives at the symposium are contributing to Indigenous Mental Health: A Global Perspective, a book edited by Danto and Dr. Masood Zangeneh.

The theme of the symposium was looking at examples of communities with positive mental health outcomes, discussing how Indigenous people and their communities can find strength and resilience in the face of colonial oppression.

Indigenous-led healing

"There's so many amazing things that happen across the globe that are Indigenous-led movements, grassroots healing approaches and practices, and whenever there are opportunities to talk about those, elevate those, that's critically important," said Tera Beaulieu.

Beaulieu is the president of the Toronto and York Region Métis Council and a contributing author on a chapter that explores culturally integrated mental health care, using traditional Indigenous healing and mainstream mental health care.

Tera Beaulieu, president of the Toronto and York Region Métis Council. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

Beaulieu said within Canada there's a national discussion, tied to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report, around what it means to build relationships and honour Indigenous Peoples' experiences and the realities and truth of those experiences. 

"It's important within that framework that we continue to talk [about restoring] Indigenous Peoples' ability to identify their healing needs and what they believe to be the ways forward in terms of healing and new and innovative development," said Beaulieu.

"New approaches have to be developed that are grounded, built from Indigenous knowledge systems, and instead of trying to bring our knowledge into a western treatment that was designed for mainstream population, we need to go back and start from an Indigenous knowledge lense and framework."


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.