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How land-based mental health interventions could benefit Indigenous communities

David Danto

The relevance of the land is really fundamental in addressing mental health related issues, particularly as it relates to intergenerational trauma and cultural identity."

Connection to the land is an intrinsic part of Indigenous well-being and successful mental health interventions for many Indigenous people. Treatment approaches based on that connection may be more effective than traditional Western approaches, according to new research recently published by University of Guelph-Humber Psychology Program Head Dr. David Danto.

Published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, Dr. Danto’s new study – funded by UofGH’s Research Grant Fund and co-authored by Duquesne University’s Dr. Russ Walsh and UofGH Psychology alumna Jocelyn Sommerfeld – brings new insight into the advantages, challenges and history of applying land-based interventions to Indigenous communities.

Titled “Land-Based Intervention: A Qualitative Study of the Knowledge and Practices Associated with One Approach to Mental Health in a Cree Community,” Dr. Danto’s article highlights the ways in which these land-based interventions can foster wellness, community and cultural connections.

“There’s a widespread notion still that Western approaches to psychotherapy and mental health are universal and will suit everybody,” Dr. Danto explained.

“That’s simply not the case.”

A collaborative process

Dr. Danto and University of Guelph-Humber students have been travelling to the James and Hudson Bay area of northern Ontario for nearly a decade now as part of a field course in the Psychology program. In a previous research study, Dr. Danto explored why a particular community had a significantly lower suicide rate than other nearby communities in the region. He found that members of that community retained a greater connection to their land than others, and the Elders and youth even embarked on extended annual trips to an earlier community location.

With this latest research, Dr. Danto and his co-authors set out to learn more about why the land seemed to be so healing for a nearby Indigenous community. He and his fellow researchers travelled north to meet with three people who had successfully carried out a land-based intervention called Project George. Dr. Danto’s team took those interviews and analyzed the results for recurring themes and points of interest, then brought those findings back to the Project George participants to revise, discuss and synthesize their conclusions together.

“It was a very collaborative process,” Dr. Danto explained.

The experience also presented another opportunity for UofGH students to gain undergraduate research experience. In addition to Sommerfeld, who was a named co-author on the article, UofGH students Priscilla Chou and Briana Jackson also helped gather and transcribe research material.

Key findings

To illustrate the difference between Western approaches to mental health and the land-based interventions explored in his article, Dr. Danto points out that most of Western psychology presumes an individualistic view of self, meaning that one’s sense of identity might have little or no connection to their home community or city.

“Other people, however, have an ecocentric – as opposed to egocentric – sense of self, one that is really grounded in the natural environment and in place,” Dr. Danto explained. “Indigenous people often have that view of self. And if you take somebody away from the land who has an ecocentric concept of self, now you have identity issues in the new location, because the self is connected to the place.”

Dr. Danto’s paper makes a compelling case for the importance of reconnecting Indigenous youth with their cultural heritage. By examining other land-based interventions from around Canada, Dr. Danto’s article also explores some of the barriers being faced by communities looking to create or institute programs like Project George.

He and his collaborators hope that their article can contribute to a more widespread understanding of the value of land-based interventions, and perhaps lead to some of those barriers – including funding, governmental policy, and the restrictions of granting agencies – being removed.

“Colonization is very much about dispossessing Indigenous people from their land, which is fundamentally about dispossessing people of their identity,” Dr. Danto said.

“The relevance of the land is really fundamental in addressing mental health related issues, particularly as it relates to intergenerational trauma and cultural identity.”