Decolonizing Mental Health: Communities Already Have What They Need


​First Nations mentors can succeed where colonial systems have failed​​


​One of the many problems with colonialism and colonial practices is that they tend to infer that Indigenous people need outside help, that they don't know how to heal on their own – something that traditional healer and trauma expert Kim Montgomery rejects. She says that community care—the process of people caring for one another within a community—is traditional mental health care.

“This is something that we've known [how] to do this whole time," said Montgomery, whose traditional name is Nkwancinem.

Montgomery presented on concepts of decolonizing mental health for First Nations at the Ninth Healing Our Spirit Worldwide gathering in Vancouver.

She said that First Nations already “know who we are, we know what we know, and we know what we belong to". But, she added, colonialism “tries to tell us that we don't know." Worse still, some First Nations people believe that message and reject community-based solutions, which can lead to lateral violence.

Montgomery said that culture and ceremonies are essential to knowing who we are as First Nations people, and that knowledge is critical to good mental health.

“There's so many [cultural] protocols that we have because they were given to us. They were given to us in dreams, they were given to us in stories."

Western models have come and gone through Montgomery's community, but she said they all failed because they have nothing to do with their people and their culture.

“We've lost trust in what we know. Trust in our stories, trust in our Elders."

Montgomery said that the way to s​upport mental health begins with identifying peer mentors in community who can teach youth and connect them to that critical culture. Her “peer mentorship" model aims to support the grassroots work that is already being done daily without acknowledgement.

The model would use community​ members as volunteers to be peer mentors and show youth important cultural traditions, including sweats; hunting, fishing, tanning and food gathering; winter ceremonies; medicines; naming protocols; puberty, marriage and death ceremonies; and other rites of passage.

However, Montgomery said many peer support volunteers are rejected because of the stigma of former substance use or criminal records. That's a problem, she said, becaus​e youth choose who they trust and want to learn from, but are prevented by rules and policies.

Montgomery was clear that youth would not be put into harmful situations. Peer mentors would b​e people living in community who are not using substances, or people who are recently home from treatment – but their past substance use would not be held against them in a stigmatizing way that disqualifies them from volunteering.

“There's so many people out there that want to help but we're just not giving them the opportunity," she said. “They come as loving people who do the work on the ground."​

Kim Montgomery is the mental health lead for the Okanagan Nation Alliance. She is also part of a response team called səxʷkənxit əlx (Those Who Help), comprised of community members who have received extensive training in the areas of suicide education, community mobilization, and critical incident response.​​

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