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Depression quietly afflicting natives

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There's a good chance depression is a silent epidemic among aboriginal people. The thought struck me while reading Jan Wong's memoir Out of the Blue.

Wong was a renowned journalist at the Globe and Mail when she covered the Dawson College school shootings in Montreal in 2006. A small bit of personal analysis in her story said part of the reason behind the shooting -- and two previous Quebec shootings -- may have been a racial divide between those who were of pure Quebec blood and those who were not.

She received hundreds of hateful emails; politicians -- including the prime minister -- criticized her. Then she received a death threat and felt her newspaper wasn't on her side. Wong descended into a major depression that left her unable to work.

Ever the journalist, Wong carefully dissects her experience in Out of the Blue, telling us about her journey and what she learned about depression.

In one section, Wong explains certain factors of an "oppression theory" gay people are more likely to suffer from, leading to high rates of depression.

The factors include discrimination in employment, housing, public humiliation and family rejection.

Most of that checklist could easily apply to many aboriginal people I know.

Many of us also have to deal with that and more. There's also financial stress, traumatic events such as abuse, family conflict, death, substance abuse and major illness, to name a few other causes of depression.

Add to that aboriginal people who live on a reserve or in a rural community have limited access to medical help and you now have a recipe for a mental-health crisis among aboriginal people. But I found very little information on depression among aboriginal people.

And do we even care? Some of us are still struggling to get clean water and decent housing, so it's often a stretch to worry about our mental health. But maybe we should start taking it seriously.

I've seen depression first-hand over the years so I know it's a common problem. It started in high school with depressed girls trying to commit suicide by taking pills.

My grandmother struggled with depression throughout her entire life. I also witnessed other family members deal with depression when I was young. And I wasn't immune either.

I suffered mild depression myself a few times, albeit not nearly as harsh as what Wong went through.

Maybe the trouble is, like many aboriginal people, I chose to deal with it by just living with it and not getting medical help. Luckily I got through it okay, but that isn't always the case.

In some ways, we are more open than others when letting other people know we are depressed. However, when it comes to getting treatment, we shy away from getting medical help for fear of looking weak, or worse, "crazy."

It's well-known many of our aboriginal communities deal with higher-than-normal suicide rates. Maybe suicides are the result of long-standing depression that hasn't been treated or even recognized by others as depression.

We need more education on what depression is and how to deal with it.

Maybe depression has become such a way of life among our families that we fail to see it as a disease at all but as a way of life we get stuck in. In any case, the effects might be a big factor in why some negative things in our communities never seem to change.

We can't take charge to change things when it's a struggle just to get out of bed or see anything positive about life. Maybe it would be difficult to study depression among aboriginal people, seeing as we are traditionally not very open with outsiders or medical staff. Maybe it would mean "insiders" doing interviews to get an honest look at how widespread the problem is.

In any case, it would be useful to take a closer look at depression among aboriginal people.


Colleen Simard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2012 J1

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