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Why one Aboriginal community’s mental health is noteworthy, and possibly helpful to others

From an Aboriginal community in northern Ontario comes a refreshing perspective on a far-too-common story:  “Many coastal communities in the James Bay region have significantly high rates of mental illness, including substance abuse, depression, and suicide” according to University of Guelph-Humber Psychology Program Head, Dr. David Danto.  “But one stands out by virtue of its reportedly low rates.”

He’s referring to an area along the James and Hudson Bay coast - a small community home to a couple hundred people.

“How is it that one community – despite a similar history of oppression and victimization – appears to have better mental health?” he asks.  “We want to understand why.”

Dr. David Danto. Program Head - Psychology

And so he and a co-researcher will be traveling to the northern community in order to do just that.  Dr. Danto and Dr. Russell Walsh of Duquesne University will be speaking with those who live and work within the community, to get their perceptions of this circumstance.

Dr. Danto explains that a unique quality to this research project includes how mental health itself will be considered:  “Mental health research in Aboriginal communities tends to focus on rates of suicide and other outcomes of mental illness, but our research is focused on strengths.  This is a different approach.”

One that is favoured by the community, as well.

In a letter to Dr. Danto, Nick Lazarus, who worked with the local health authority, states that “there tends to be too much attention on the negative outcomes in the James Bay community, and no one hears about the resiliency and strength of the Cree people.”

The importance of examining behaviour within a broader context is one that resonates with Dr. Danto.  As a psychologist at a maximum security prison, Dr. Danto has worked with many Aboriginal offenders. 

“The relevance of history and politics in this broader context came into play in terms of how it shaped some of the pathology that I was seeing.”

“I’ve never seen any behaviour that – when you took the time to understand it – didn’t have a reason,” he adds.

The need to examine information in this broader context is why Dr. Danto will be using an uncommon research method.

“Qualitative research allows you to analyze conversations as a whole,” he says.  “This is particularly relevant within Aboriginal communities because it lets people convey their experience within its context.”

By taking a different approach to both the kind of information gathered and the method, Dr. Danto hopes to yield answers that will ultimately be of help to other Aboriginal communities.

Research at UofGH
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