Using culture to treat addictions

Using culture to treat addictions



Colleen Dell is exploring how indigenous culture helps people overcome addictions and the connection between human health and the health of animals and the environment.

“Linking animals, humans and the environment — in an indigenous world view, the three are never separated,” Dell said. “They have to be in equilibrium.

“Historically, indigenous people have lived with the land very well. From a western view right now, we couldn’t be doing worse. We are disconnected from the land, we don’t respect the land. We dominate the land and it’s the same thing with the animals.”

Dell, a sociology professor at the University of Saskatchewan, is the lead on a research project on indigenous health and animal-assisted interventions.

The keynote speaker at the Conference Board of Canada’s Indigenous Health Innovations Forum, held Wednesday in Regina, Dell spoke about her project: Honouring our Strengths: Culture as Intervention.

She told of an elder and indigenous researchers who travelled to 12 treatment centres across Canada. The elder spent three or four days at each location.

“He spent the first day and a half or so sharing the creation story, so that the project wasn’t just about, ‘Give me your information,’ ” Dell said.

Instead, the elder and members of the community led discussions about the role of culture in addictions treatment.

At White Buffalo Youth Lodge on Sturgeon Lake First Nation, horses are integral to treatment.

“A large majority of the girls coming through this residential treatment centre have experienced physical, sexual abuse,” Dell said.

But as a result of working with the horses, the young women learned what a healthy touch means.

“How else could you teach ‘healthy touch’?” Dell asked. “You get that feeling of trust and feeling of safety with a horse.”

Through the equine-assisted learning program, participants do a number of activities with a horse.

“For example, you have to lead a horse around some barriers or you have to get the horse to lie down,” Dell said. “To be able to do that with a horse, you have to connect. You cannot tell that horse what to do.

“Good luck if you’re going to try and drag a horse through some obstacles. Not until you respect that horse will that horse start to work with you.”

When indigenous people recapture their lost culture, they are on the road to discovering their identity and healing, she said.

“How can you be healthy in the world with your family if you don’t know who you are?” Dell said. “It is about respectful relationships — we need to build them between ourselves, the land and animals. But people also have to have good relationships with themselves.”

Her message resonated with Roger Francis, director of the Saskatchewan Institute for the Conference Board of Canada.

Francis co-chaired the conference, entitled Closing the Gap: Indigenous Health Innovations Forum.

“We’re talking about what is being led by indigenous organizations and indigenous people in this province to improve indigenous health care,” Francis said.

In consultation with the First Nations University of Canada, the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and the Indigenous Peoples’ Health Research Centre at the University of Regina, Francis developed the steering committee.

About 65 people from Toronto, Alberta and Saskatchewan attended the conference and included government policymakers, First Nations health delivery agents, health researchers and health consultants.

One session focused on health innovations in Saskatchewan’s north, another on innovations in the south.

“We talked about community-led innovations in HIV, in hepatitis C — and how, by letting the communities and the patients and the patients’ families provide the insight and intelligence in the solution for vision, you get better outcomes,” Francis said.

“In other words, culture becomes a real driver of positive health outcomes for people.”

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