Mental Illness in Aboriginal Communities

Today’s Aboriginal communities suffer from a unique set of mental health challenges.  It has not always been this way, but in the years since Canada was colonized there have been changes forced upon the Aboriginal peoples that created this situation. Forced acculturation and sedentarization, when Aboriginal peoples had frequently been nomadic, and residential schools which took children away from their homes and forced them to live at these schools and learn the way that European children did. Over bearing cultural oppression that accompanied these policies have made them lose touch with their sense of identity and has created a cultural disconnect in the Aboriginal peoples.  The effect of these mental health challenges range from depression to substance abuse and continue on to things as awful as suicide.


Already by the 1990s, the First Nations Aboriginal population was two times more likely than the national average to suffer from serious bouts of depression  as seen in the table below.

Major Depression among Ontario First Nations (1997) Compared to Canada (1994)

Men Women Total
FN* Can* FN Can FN Can
*FN = First Nations; CAN = Canada
Major depression 13.3% 5.4% 18.4% 9.4% 15.9% 7.5%
The depression interferes with activities ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ 24.5% 13.5% 27.2% 17.7% 25.8% 15.7%

More Aboriginal people suffered from depression, and out of the people who are suffering they are about 1.4 times more likely to seek help than the average Canadian.

Substance Abuse 

Substance abuse is a very real problem in Aboriginal communities and not just in the form of alcohol but also solvents and cannabis. Cannabis is used by about 48% of 15-17 year olds and solvents are used by 33% of youths under the age of 15, (Mood Disorders Society of Canada, “Quick Facts: Mental illness and addiction in Canada November 2009, 3rd Edition” page 18) the use of solvents is often seen to start before the age of 11 .  Alcohol use is lower than that of the Canadian average in Aboriginal communities, however the rate of heavy drinking is double that of the rest of Canada.  The chart below illustrates problems with alcohol aboriginal communities.

Indications of Problems with Alcohol in First Nations and Inuit Communities
*FN = Firstnations
Source: Data for Inuit in 2001 are from Statistics Canada 2001b. Remaining data are from NAHO 2004.
Feel that alcohol/drug use is a problem in the community All Inuit (2001) 76–77%
FN* in Quebec communities (1997) 74%
Alcohol is a problem in the household FN in Manitoba communities (1997) >33%
A family member has a drinking problem Labrador Inuit (1997) 33%
Ever felt that they needed to cut back on drinking, or did cut back Labrador Inuit, FN in Ontario and Manitoba communities (1997) 77–90%
Need to cut back on drinking at present Labrador Inuit (1997) 27%
Say that they themselves have a drinking problem FN in Manitoba communities (1997) 25%
Alcohol affected work or studies in past year FN in Sask. communities (1997) 15%
Ever attended an alcohol treatment centre Labrador Inuit 10%


This is one of the most traumatic parts of mental health problems.  Suicide rates among aboriginals are drastically higher than that of the rest of Canada there are double the Canadian average in most first nations communities and from 6-11 times higher in Inuit communities.

 -Ryan Myers

Below are some readings you may want to look into if you are interested in learning more.

  •  Michael J. Chandler, Christopher Lalonde “Cultural Continuity as a Hedge against Suicide in Canada’s First Nations”, Transcultural Psychiatry (1998)
  • Melanie S. MacNeil, “An Epidemiologic Study of Aboriginal Adolescent Risk in Canada: The Meaning of Suicide” Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, Volume 21, Number 1 (2008).


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