Mental Health & the Medicine Wheel
One of the first things I learned about my Anishnaabeg culture was the Medicine Wheel. As an adoptee, and as a crown ward, being separated from the mental, physical, spiritual and social nourishment I needed to grow up and thrive as an Anishnaabeg has had an impact on my health. I've suffered from depression since my early adolescence.
From a mainstream healthcare perspective, depression
is a disorder, the symptoms of which cause clinically
signi? cant distress or impairment in physical, social,
occupational, and other key areas of functioning.
Women are approximately twice as likely as men to
experience depression. The average major depressive
episode persists approximately nine months in the
absence of treatment, and about 50% of individuals
who have one episode will experience a recurrence.
Psychosocial factors likely mediate risks for depression
incurred by biological in? uences. The effects of stress,
violence, poverty, inequality, and low self-esteem likely
increase womenís vulnerability to depression.
I grew up in the city. My adoptive home and foster
home provided access to all the basic necessities
of life, an education, health care and extras. The
expectation was that I would succeed in life by happily following the Canadian middle-class routine: ? nish high
school, go to college or university, establish a career,
? nd a partner, get married, and have children. In that
order. And buy stuff, as far as I could tell.
What in the world would such a person have to be
depressed about? What are you doing, crying in your
room again? Now I know that I was an adoptee
suffering from suppressed grief over the loss of my
family, confusion over my lack of cultural identity, and a
lack of spiritual foundation to my life. Thus, I developed
this ongoing depression, to which I was probably also
Realizing the underlying factors of my condition has not
been easy. More often than not, Ií ve been prescribed
pharmaceuticals, which, for some people, do no more
than cover up the real problem until the little purple
pills or orange pills run out.
When I began to seek out traditional health practices
as a part of the treatment for my depression, I
began to see how our methods and philosophies are
much more holistic than the mainstream health care
perspective. On a day to day basis, depression is not
an easy condition to deal with. Itís not something you
can just shake off and forget about in donít worry, be
happy style. Depression has strongly impacted my
life. It takes a lot longer for me to bounce back after a
setback. It affects my parenting, my social and romantic relationships, and has affected my education and
employment. People who suffer from depression also
face subtle discrimination: for the record, weíre not lazy,
grumpy, slow or crazy. Other people also think that
there is something seriously wrong with someone who
sees a psychiatrist or therapist on a regular basis, but
wouldní t bat an eyelash at a person who regularly
sees a chiropractor, for example.
James K. Bartleman, the ? rst Aboriginal Lieutenant
Governor of Ontario, has made it a priority to speak
openly about depression. Mr. Bartleman has said
that he wants to do all he can to reduce the stigma
of mental illness, which prevents many people from
seeking the help they need.
Only recently have I realized that depression is not
something I can expect to be cured of - the usual aim
of mainstream medicine. It is a condition that I must
constantly monitor and treat with whatever healthy
things work for me: that means no binges on food,
alcohol, drugs, sleeping, sex, etc. The times in my past
during which I was severely depressed are virtually
blank periods of lost time - which is one reason I took
Dealing constructively with my issues has helped a
lot more than little pills. Ií ve dealt with my feelings,
connected with my biological family with the help of my
sister, and have sought out my Anishnaabeg culture
and spirituality. Along the way Ií ve had the support
of health care professionals who have been positive
and encouraging concerning my discovery of cultural
identity and spirituality.
Most Elders Iíve spoken to have agreed that, when
treating any health condition, a blend of traditional
and mainstream treatments is appropriate. It is also
necessary to keep both Healer and physician informed
as to what treatments you are following in order to
prevent the possibility of an adverse reaction.
My depression improved and my lifeís healing began
when I started to ? nd my own culture and healing
ways. As I said, one of the ? rst things I learned about
my Anishnaabeg culture was the Medicine Wheel.
Take care of the physical, mental, social and spiritual
aspects of your entire person and you will keep yourself
in balance and good health.
Itís important how our healing ceremonies integrate all
four aspects. Think of the sweatlodge, for instance. A
sweat is usually conducted by two Elders, a man and
woman. The darkness and warmth of the sweatlodge The darkness and warmth of the sweatlodge
is like the loving embrace of Mother Earthís womb,
where one may safely re? ect and focus upon oneself
as an individual. Here the steam from the water and
medicines poured on the Grandfather rocks cleanses
our bodies inside and out. Then in the company of
close companions, one may have the opportunity to speak what is on our minds and hearts, release the
negative and receive positive feedback from the others.
After each round - when the door of the sweatlodge is
opened for fresh air and to release the accumulated
steam and energy - cool water and berries are passed
around as thanks and sustenance.
Some sweats Iíve been to are followed by a feast.
No oneí s said that a sweat is a cure-all, but Ií ve felt
good after every one. And thatís what feeling good
and healthy is about: taking care of your body and
mind, spending quality time with family and friends,
and developing a foundation of spiritual beliefs and
practices upon which to base your other actions.
Our ceremonies and medicines were banned for many
years. It is more dif? cult to ? nd an Elder, a Traditional
Healer or a Medicine Person than it is to ? nd a family
physician or a psychiatrist. Seeking out and using
traditional healing requires effort, commitment and
courage. Our Elders are passing on to the Spirit World,
and with them passes our knowledge of traditional
healing practices. We can ensure that these teachings
will be sustained by seeking our traditions, teachings
and ceremonies; by supporting the people who have
this knowledge; and, by supporting those who commit
to learning them to pass on to future generations.
Seeking out your culture and traditional healing
practices may well have a positive impact on the
mental, physical, social and spiritual aspects of your
own health and your communities.
1. Donna E. Steward, MD, FRCPC (University of Toronto); Enza
Gucciardi, MHSc; and Sherry L. Grace,
PhD (University health Network), http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/pphb-dgs
L. Abel is Anishnaabeg from MChigeeng First Nation, and
presently lives in Ottawa, O Ontario ntario..