Home > Mental Health and the Medicine Wheel
Vol. 7 Issue 1

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.

Lisa Abel

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 biologically predisposed.

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 up writing.

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 psp/publicat/whsrrssf/ pdf/CPHI_Wom ensHealth_e.pdf 2. www.lt.gov.on.ca

L. Abel is Anishnaabeg from MChigeeng First Nation, and presently lives in Ottawa, O Ontario ntario..

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