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,” says Prof. David Danto, psychology program head at the University of Guelph-Humber. “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.”
To answer that question, Danto and co-researcher Prof. Russell Walsh of Duquesne University will travel to the northern community to speak with its residents.
The research project will focus on mental health from a different perspective than previous studies, says Danto. “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.”
It’s an approach that is favoured by the community, as well.
In a letter to Danto, Nick Lazarus, who worked with the local health authority, wrote 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 resonates with Danto, who has worked with many aboriginal offenders as a psychologist at a maximum security prison.
“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,” he says. “I’ve never seen any behaviour that – when you took the time to understand it – didn’t have a reason.”
The need to examine information in this broader context is why 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, Danto aims to find answers that will ultimately help other aboriginal communities.