Friday, October 24, 2008

Stress, Cree First Nation Indigenous People, and Mental Health: Article Sheds New Understanding

A recent article published in Ethos by Naomi Adelson brings up several important points concerning indigenous peoples and mental health. Specifically, she highlights some of the disjunctions between Euroamerican mental health categories such as stress, and Cree First Nation Women's understanding of this category and its place in their lives.

The Abstract

Allan Young's classic thesis on stress discourse underscores the way in which the biomedical discourse of "stress" reflects and legitimizes existing social inequalities even as it removes the language of stress to the decontextualized domain of the clinic. In this article, I address the way in which the "stress discourse" of a group of young adult Cree women who live in a remote northern Canadian village reflects and reinscribes the social, cultural, and historical conditions of inequality as part and parcel of community life. This study, as a reflection of Young's thesis, reveals that sometimes one is bound to replicate inequities because it is necessary to do so. The women with whom I spoke are entangled in an historical and social reality that they are wholly aware of such that the paths of inequity that are expressed in a rationale of "stress" cannot readily be challenged or changed.

Key Findings

For the women of Whapmagoostui the term stress is at one and the same time a foreign yet wholly recognizable concept, understood as an emotional and psychological response to the heavy demands of their lives. Although there is are shared challenges in terms of the various historical, economic, political, and social determinants of stress in their daily lives, there is a concomitant perpetuation of the idea that "stress" needs to be managed on one's own. For these women, socially and culturally drive practices of inequity, heightened by the circumstances peculiar to the institutionalization of colonial and missionary practices, emerge as problematic predominantly through the individualized and embodied popular discourse of "stress." Although that decontextualized language serves initially to give women a means to express their discontent, there are significant implications in terms of how they can substantively address their personal and collective concerns.

The result is that social and community engagement with problems expressed through the language of stress are curbed.

If outside professionals narrow the discussion of "mental health" issues amongst Aboriginal populations into "measurable attributes" we may simply not be able to see those socially and culturally sanctioned practices that impinge on some members of a given community and not others.

The women with whom I spoke in Whapmagoostui clearly recognized their distress as fundamentally linked to the present-day remains of colonization and pervasive effects of the resulting asymmetrical social relations, often expressed through the norms of cultural practices. They do not want, however, a prescriptive, unexamined return to "culture."

Within Aboriginal communities in the last few years, First Nations women in particular have begun to speak out about the difficulties that they face in their personal, social, and economic lives. For example, see the work of Kim Anderson (2000), Cecelia Benoit and Dena Carroll (2000), Mary E. Brayboy and Mary Y. Morgan (1998), Madeline Dion Stout (1995), Marilyn Fontaine-Bright Star (1992), Camille Fouillard (1995), Sherry L. Hambly (2000), Winona LaDuke (1995), and Joanne Reid (1993). The issues they raise include everything from the extremes of suicide, drug or alcohol dependence, physical abuse, and disease to the struggles of poverty, unemployment or limited employment, workplace harassment, difficult home life experiences, lone parenthood, or the balancing of work and family responsibilities.

The range of life traumas that First Nations women experience must be understood - and addressed - as part of a larger sociopolitical process that reaches back to the history of colonization and its enduring effects. This collective burden, or social suffering, compounds whatever personal traumas women may be experiencing in their everyday lives. We must attend, in other words, to the social, economic, and political realms of distress and how they articulate in women's lives.

The full citation of this article is: Adelson, Naomi. (2008). Discourses of Stress, Social Inequities, and the Everyday Worlds of First Nations Women in a Remote Northern Canadian Community. Ethos, 36(3):316-333.

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