Canadian Journal of Public Health

, Volume 108, Issue 2, pp e208–e210 | Cite as

Reclaiming Indigenous identities: Culture as strength against suicide among Indigenous youth in Canada

  • Brittany Barker
  • Ashley Goodman
  • Kora DeBeck


In Canada, Indigenous youth suicide represents one of several health disparities burdening Indigenous populations, and like many other of these disparities, can be understood as an expression of societal, historical, cultural and familial trauma. As the number of Indigenous youth who take their own lives every year in Canada continues to far exceed national averages, it appears that conventional suicide prevention efforts remain ineffective among this population. A growing body of research argues that conventional interventions, largely rooted in Western individual-level behavioural change frameworks, are culturally discordant with Indigenous paradigms. In response, some Indigenous communities are turning to cultural revitalization as a holistic community-driven response to suicide prevention and treatment. The following commentary explores the emerging evidence base for “culture as treatment” - a novel approach to suicide that emphasizes the significance of interconnectedness in healing, alongside the revitalization of traditional values to reclaim community wellness. In doing so, we seek to contribute to a changing discourse surrounding Indigenous youth suicide by acknowledging culture as strength against this national crisis.

Key Words

health services Indigenous population groups adolescent 


Au Canada, le suicide chez les jeunes Autochtones n’est que l’une des disparités d’état sanitaire qui écrasent les populations autochtones; comme bien d’autres de ces disparités, il peut être compris comme étant l’expression de traumatismes sociétaux, historiques, culturels et familiaux. Le nombre de jeunes Autochtones qui s’enlèvent la vie chaque année au Canada continue de dépasser largement les moyennes nationales; il semble donc que les efforts classiques de prévention du suicide demeurent inefficaces dans cette population. Un corpus croissant de recherche fait valoir que les interventions classiques, qui s’inscrivent en grande partie dans les cadres occidentaux de modification individuelle des comportements, sont culturellement en décalage avec les paradigmes autochtones. En réaction, certaines communautés autochtones voient dans le renouveau culturel une réponse holistique communautaire à la prévention et au traitement du suicide. Notre commentaire explore les fondements scientifiques émergents de «la culture comme traitement» - une démarche novatrice face au suicide qui met l’accent sur l’importance de l’interdépendance dans la guérison, en plus du renouveau des valeurs traditionnelles, pour recouvrer le mieux-être communautaire. Ce faisant, nous voulons contribuer à changer le discours entourant le suicide chez les jeunes Autochtones en reconnaissant que la culture est une force contre cette crise nationale.

Mots Clés

suicide services de santé pour autochtones groupes de population adolescent 


  1. 1.
    Porter J. First Nations losing ‘babies’ to suicide, Chief says after 10-year-old dies. CBC News [Thunder Bay], 2016 January 20. Available at: (Accessed January 20, 2016).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Government of Canada. The Human Face of Mental Health and Mental Illness in Canada. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2006. Available at: (Accessed May 13, 2016).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Wexler LM, Gone JP. Culturally responsive suicide prevention in Indigenous communities: Unexamined assumptions and new possibilities. Am J Public Health 2012;102:800–6. PMID: 22420786. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2011.300432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Gone JP. Redressing First Nations historical trauma: Theorizing mechanisms for Indigenous culture as mental health treatment. Transcult Psychiatry 2013; 50:683–706. PMID: 23715822. doi: 10.1177/1363461513487669.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Press H. Davis Inlet in crisis: Will the lessons ever be learned? Can J Native Stud 1995;15:187.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Thompson J. Aboriginal youth suicides cascading, study finds. Thunder Bay News Watch [Thunder Bay], 2015 June 30. Available at: finds (Accessed July 27, 2015).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Health Canada. First Nations and Inuit Health: Mental Health and Wellness. Ottawa, ON: Government of Canada, 2015. Available at: (Accessed January 26, 2016).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Atleo S. Provincial Forum on First Nations Youth Suicide. Renaissance Hotel, Vancouver, BC, February 21–23, 2007Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Choosing Life: Special Report on Suicide Among Aboriginal People. Ottawa, ON: Government of Canada, 1994; 135.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Kirmayer L, Simpson C, Cargo M. Healing traditions: Culture, community and mental health promotion with Canadian Aboriginal peoples. Australas Psychiatr 2003;11:S15–23. doi: 10.1046/j.1038-5282.2003.02010.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Green BL. Culture is treatment: Considering pedagogy in the care of Aboriginal people. J Psychosoc Nurs Ment Health Serv 2010;48:27–34. PMID: 20506971. doi: 10.3928/02793695-20100504-04.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Chandler MJ, Lalonde C. Cultural continuity as a moderator of suicide risk among Canada’s First Nations. In: Kirmayer LJ, Valaskakis GG (Eds.), Healing Traditions: The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2009; 221–48.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Hallett D, Chandler MJ, Lalonde CE. Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide. Cogn Dev 2007;22:392–99. doi: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2007.02.001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Rowan M, Poole N, Shea B, Gone JP, Mykota D, Farag M, et al. Cultural interventions to treat addictions in Indigenous populations: Findings from a scoping study. Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy 2014;9:34. PMID: 25179797. doi: 10.1186/1747-597X-9-34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Rowan M, Poole N, Shea B, Mykota D, Farag M, Hopkins C, et al. A scoping study of cultural interventions to treat addictions in Indigenous populations: Methods, strategies and insights from a Two-Eyed Seeing approach. Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy 2015;10(1):26. PMID: 26141750. doi: 10.1186/s13011-015-0021-6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Gone JP, Calf Looking P. The Blackfeet Indian Culture Camp: Auditioning an alternative Indigenous treatment for substance use disorders. Psychol Serv 2015;12:83–91. PMID: 25961644. doi: 10.1037/ser0000013.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Health Services Department, File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council. “Acting Out! But in a Good Way”: Developing Aboriginal Youth Health Leadership Through Theatre. Available at: (Accessed January 20, 2016).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Canadian Public Health Association 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brittany Barker
    • 1
    • 2
  • Ashley Goodman
    • 1
  • Kora DeBeck
    • 1
    • 3
  1. 1.BC Centre for Substance UseBC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, St. Paul’s HospitalVancouverCanada
  2. 2.Interdisciplinary Studies Graduate ProgramUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  3. 3.School of Public PolicySimon Fraser UniversityBurnabyCanada

Personalised recommendations