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  • Joel Rosenberg, Chief Mental Health Officer

Anti racism and mental health: a guide for Indigenous Peoples and their allies

Updated: Jul 9



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"In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist." –Angela Davis, American political activist

Generational trauma and racism have surrounded Indigenous Peoples for much of Canada’s history. It comes as no surprise that these communities are struck with disproportionately higher rates of mental illness than their non-Indigenous counterparts year after year [1].


While there is clearly change that needs to be made, however, it is important to remember that our mental health is one of our most important assets. Because our mental health affects the way we think, feel, and act, it is especially important to protect when addressing the harsh realities of racism. When our mental health is not at its best, we cannot fight racism at our best.


We interviewed Ro’nikonkatste, an Indigenous leader and mental health practitioner, on his experiences with racism against Indigenous Peoples. Ro’nikonkatste, whose name means “Standing Strong Spirit”, shared his stories with us on how to protect one’s mental health when faced with racism and how he has succeeded in creating the change we need in society.


In this article, we first talk about mental health and racism from an Indigenous perspective, followed by how to use mental health skills to build allyship. Lastly, we finish off with the tip Ro’nikonkatste says is the single most important action towards anti-racism.


Note to Indigenous Peoples


1) Your identity is important and valid.


Your identity is the embodiment of your core values and makes up who you are [2]. These can include moral beliefs, heritage, sexuality, and the products of relationships you have built with others throughout your life.


When there are barriers that prevent you from accepting parts of your identity, the internal conflict can ultimately lead to poor mental health [3]. One of these barriers is racism.


Ro’nikonkatste describes racism as “an invalidation of your identity and its worth at its core.”


When asked about how racism affects mental health, Ro’nikonkatste responded, saying,

“Your mental wellness is driven by your self perception. It’s not driven by ‘do people like me,’ it’s ‘do I like me?’ You often judge yourself in silence, thinking that you are what all these people say ‘isn’t good.’”


Racism is essentially a direct attack on someone’s worth based on their skin color. And because people often tend to base their worth on how others perceive them, racism often takes a hit on one’s self-perception as well [4].


Instead of focusing on how others may criticize you, focus on the things that you love and take pride in about yourself. Regardless of what others may say, your strengths are unique to you. This will give you a greater sense of autonomy and self-esteem, and allow you to stop comparing yourself to others’ perceptions of your identity [5].


You can choose to be you. You can choose to love you.



2) Each of us is our greatest wellspring of validation.


Self-validation is learning how to accept your own thoughts and feelings [6]. While you cannot change how others perceive you and your emotions, you can choose to control how you interpret and accept your own thoughts and feelings.


Ro’nikonkatste says, “the whole concept of wellness is about allowing yourself to heal and being confident that your story is powerful.”


In order to heal, first recognize that your thoughts and feelings in response to racism are always valid. Give yourself permission to feel the way that you do, and remind yourself regularly that it is okay to feel this way or any way.


Second, realize that self-validation is not just a matter of accepting your emotions; it is active. It is the act of telling yourself that who you are, and where you came from to get to who you are, is valuable. That your name, whether you choose to be identified with your English or Indigenous name, is valid. That you are not a product of other people’s racial perceptions and invalidating views.


No matter what anybody else decides, you have the power to control and validate your own identity, thoughts, and feelings.

Start doing this through the following techniques:

  1. Regular practice of mindfulness to be in tune with who you are and what you are feeling and thinking

  2. Active validating statements like affirming self-talk

  3. Radical acceptance - check out the Resili app to learn what this is, how it works, and why this actually helps create the change we need


3) Tap into mental health tools as you explore your identity.


“Whenever I think of my own wellness, I think of me being an Indigenous person. I think of how a lot of the reason I wasn’t happy was because I didn’t know who I was.”


Exploring your identity can offer you more clarity and insight into who you are and where you came from. This clarity can help you learn how to accept your own differences, as well as open your mind to accepting the differences of others [7].


One way to embark on your journey of self-discovery is through mindfulness. Mindfulness refers to the act of accepting your present thoughts and feelings, as they are, without judgement [8].


You can practice mindfulness through meditation and meditation-like practices. Ro’nikonkatste describes his journey of self-discovery through annual trips to the woods where he had the opportunity to reconnect with himself through land-based healing without distraction.


“We would be in the woods for 4 days and not eat or drink as part of a way of being with creation and understanding ourselves as part of creation. I did that for 16 years just to see who I am without any interruptions, not even supper.”

Some common mindfulness practices that you can try are:

  1. Meditation - While there are many meditation practices which you can access online through websites or apps, as well as in Resili, the core of meditation is a present awareness, anchored by your breath. Pick one part of your body that you notice your breath passing through, and gently focus on it as you breath in, and out. This can be as simple as regularly pausing to take 5 deep, intentional breaths.

  2. Body work - Instead of your breath, try resting all of your attention on the way your body feels. You can do this through yoga, progressive muscle relaxation (guided practice available in Resili), or a simple and calm scan of how each part of your body feels, from your toes to the top of your head.

  3. Just notice - At transition points in your day–starting work, getting to one place from another–pause and ask yourself what you noticed in the last hour. It could be the sound of rain against the window, the smell of food down the hall or in the streets, a person with a particularly beautiful smile or piece of clothing. The first time many people try this, they find themselves struggling to recall anything that they actively noticed. By creating this space regularly to reflect, you’ll encourage a more mindful being in your day to day activities.

For more mindfulness practices and other mental health skills, download the forever free Resili app here.


Note to non-Indigenous Peoples


1) Validate others by asking them what they need.


Many people want to be there for Indigenous Peoples and give them the support that they need. But oftentimes, they struggle to find how they can best be allies.


Ro’nikonkatste says:

“One thing I’ve learned is I don’t treat people the way I want to be treated. I ask them, ‘what do you need from me?’ I’ll treat you the way you ask me to treat you.”

Ro’nikonkatste identifies one way to be an ally is by validating Indigenous Peoples, which means actively accepting and respecting their thoughts and emotions. By doing so, you are able to respond to their emotions rather than your own [6].


You can practice validating others in all walks of your life. It can even begin in your own family. Ro’nikonkatste speaks about how learning to ask what his family members need from him can allow him to really understand how they feel and how he can best support them.


“I’ve been married to my wife for 29 years and I haven’t got a clue who she is. And we’re very close, we’re best friends. But I have to discover her every day. I have to ask her, “What do you need from me?” so that I’m actually doing what she’s needing me to do. Otherwise, I’m guessing her.”


This does not necessarily mean that you can ever completely understand. But by accepting their feelings as a valid part of their experience, you are setting yourself up for more effective communication and allowing others to express themselves in a way that helps you to better understand what they are feeling.


Remember, validation is equal parts expressing and listening. First, actively express your interest and openness. Try phrases like:

“I don’t know your experience, and I want to help.”

“What I hear you saying is…”

“How can I support you?”

“It sounds as though you’re feeling…”



2) Be mindful of lowering your own voice and raising Indigenous voices.


A second way in which you can be an ally, which goes hand in hand with validating others, is in learning to be mindful of lowering your own voice and lifting the voices of Indigenous Peoples. By doing so, you can really allow yourself to listen to what they want, rather than what you think they want.


First, you should admit that you don’t know exactly how to help. Next, you should ask Indigenous Peoples what they want you to do.


“There should be more Indigenous voices at tables where decisions are being made . . .

There should be someone at the table sharing what’s actually needed rather than people guessing it out.”


When you are not being mindful of overpowering Indigenous voices with your own, you are letting your own assumptions take over their realities.

In Ro’nikonkatste’s position as Project Lead at London Health Science Centre, he has been able to make significant changes to hospitals and bring Indigenous elders and sacred spaces to the hospital. As a result, hospitals are now on the road to developing medical care that integrates Indigenous culture into their care and treatment, “where they get to have their ceremonies and culture as care, and identity is part of their treatment.” As a result of these changes, the level of trust in healthcare in Indigenous communities begins to rise, and Indigenous patients can begin to feel much more comfortable going to hospitals to receive the treatment that they need.


Ro’nikonkatste’s story shows how actively listening to and making room for Indigenous Peoples and their specific needs can lead to meaningful change in the current system. This ultimately begins with being mindful of your privilege and lowering your voice while lifting up the voices of Indigenous Peoples.



Note to all/What can we all do?


Be kind and seek kindness


“Find each other; find the kind ones. Everybody has something important to share when it comes to being kind. Everybody.”

Ro’nikonkatste tells us about the importance of being kind and surrounding ourselves with kind people. When you do this, you allow yourself to accumulate positive experiences, which can ultimately help to boost your mental health. Later, memories of these positive emotions can help move you forward, especially through difficult times.


For Indigenous Peoples, this can mean surrounding yourself with people who can and will work to understand your history the best that they can. People who will listen to you and validate your experiences and feelings.


For non-Indigenous Peoples, this can mean surrounding yourself with people who are serious about wanting change and making it happen. People who really want to change the narrative and be anti-racist. Active racism and hate is perpetuated by groups of unkind people. It stands to reason that we need a unified group of kind people to spread anti-racism.


By finding people who are like-minded and kind, and surrounding ourselves with these types of people, you can build communities who truly care, while strengthening and protecting your mental health at the same time.


In Ro’nikonkatste’s powerful words, “If you use kindness as the basis of your decisions, no matter what you do, even your failures will be beautiful. Because you’re just trying to create and generate kindness. Can you just imagine this world if the people in power used that?”


Can you just imagine this world if the people in power used that?”

In this day and age, we cannot sit idly by while Indigenous Peoples are being directly affected and hurt by the systems of racism set up against them. And everyone has a part to play when it comes to being anti-racist.


Amidst the hard conversations and brave activism, it is crucial that you remember to protect your mental health, which can often be neglected during a time like this. Only when you do this can you fully take your place in the fight against racism and enact change.



References

  1. De Leeuw, S., Greenwood, M. & Cameron, E. (2010). Deviant Constructions: How Governments Preserve Colonial Narratives of Addictions and Poor Mental Health to Intervene into the Lives of Indigenous Children and Families in Canada. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8(2), 282–295.

  2. Hitlin, S. (2003). Values as the core of personal identity: Drawing links between two theories of self*. Social Psychology Quarterly, 66(2), 118-137.

  3. Goth, K., Foelsch, P., Schlüter-Müller, S. et al. Assessment of identity development and identity diffusion in adolescence - Theoretical basis and psychometric properties of the self-report questionnaire AIDA. Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health 6, 27 (2012).

  4. Wilson, A. R., & Leaper, C. (2016). Bridging multidimensional models of ethnic-racial and gender identity among ethnically diverse emerging adults. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45(8), 1614-1637.

  5. Fassbinder, E., Schweiger, U., Martius, D., Brand-de Wilde, O., & Arntz, A. (2016). Emotion Regulation in Schema Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1373.

  6. Kong, C. (2019). Nurture before responsibility: Self-in-relation competence and self-harm. Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology : PPP, 26(1), 1-18.

  7. Desai, P. P., Dodor, B. A., & Carroll, E. B. (2020). Exploring one's family heritage to enhance self-awareness: A step toward developing cultural competence. Family Relations, 69(1), 76-91.

  8. Frazer, C.,PhD.C.N.S.C.N.E., & Stathas, S. A.,M.S.N.C.C. (2015). Mindfulness: Being present in the moment. International Journal of Childbirth Education, 30(2), 77-83.


To learn more about mental health and build practical skills like the ones discussed here, download the Resili App here for free.

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