Canadian Wellness From Two Lenses

Canadian wellness should integrate biomedical and traditional healing principles

Multiculturalism is written into Canada’s federal policy. We say we are a mosaic, and that each culture simply adds a new tile to Canada’s picture. We do have to think critically about this perspective. But, it is true that medicine has been deeply impacted by exposure to different cultures and beliefs. In this article, I will focus on Canadian wellness, and how it is perceived from the biomedical perspective vs from the Canadian Indigenous perspective.

Biomedicine & Canadian Wellness

Canadian wellness is largely influenced by biomedical understandings. However, it can be expanded on by including principles from Indigenous traditional medicine.
Photo by Kristine Wook

Historically, biomedicine took an acute approach to illness. Similarly, different aspects of health were confined to separate silos.

It is only within my lifetime that mental health and illness are spoken about with minimal stigma!

The body, the mind, and the spirit are considered separate and they require separate interventions.

Luckily, Canadian wellness has come a long way. There is a growing movement to address health holistically within the medical practice. Moreover, in public health, there is a greater understanding that addressing social determinants of health will greatly improve physical health down the line!

On the other hand, Canada has a long way to go when it comes to integrating various aspects of health. Many doctors are unsure how to navigate mental illness diagnoses. Many health care staff are uncomfortable when confronted by differing perspectives on health and wellness.

This is not to say that there aren’t amazing healthcare professionals that are working to bridge those gaps. Many medical staff take it upon themselves to learn the various ways that wellness interconnects.

However, on the side of education and policy, we have a long way to go before biomedicine is truly integrated.

Indigenous Perspectives on Canadian Wellness

On the other hand, the Indigenous people of what is now known as Canada have always addressed health holistically.

In Ojibwe culture, their medicine wheel has four segments: mind, body, spirit, and emotion.

While in Western culture, there is still some stigma attached to emotional responses, the Ojibwe recognize the need to express, share, and feel emotions daily. This is especially true in response to traumatic or upsetting events.

Moreover, traditional healing, as described by WE R NATIVE, necessitates harmony within the self, community, and natural environment.

Traditional healing recognizes that our body is an integrated system. If one part of the system breaks down, then it impacts every other part of the system. Anger, if improperly expressed, can lead to depression, which can lead to addiction, which can lead to liver failure. Likewise, when we are sick, we have an emotional response to our situation.

Treating mental illness, like PTSD, with traditional healing gives an individual space to express themselves, tell their story, and move at a pace they are comfortable with. There is a strong belief in Alaska that Western medical staff must be educated about traditional healing in order to pave the way for Indigenous patients.

Why Does It Matter?

On one hand, though Canada is multicultural on paper, multiculturalism rarely makes its way into the minutiae of policy and practice. On the other hand, biomedicine has A LOT to learn from traditional healing methods.

So why does it matter that we try to integrate Canadian wellness?

Simply put, integrating biomedicine with Indigenous traditional healing will support the health of some of our most vulnerable populations.

When our doctors, nurses, and administrative staff understand the importance of traditional healing, and make the effort to connect their patients to other options, patients may heal better. Indigenous culture will be supported and recognized by these referrals. Culture, for many Indigenous people, is a healing form of connection.

But what about non-Indigenous patients?

Adverse Childhood Experiences and Holistic Wellness

Have you heard of Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs?

ACEs are the traumatic or life-altering events that occur in a child’s life. This includes divorce, a death in the family, addiction in the family, various forms of abuse, and much more. In the original study conducted, 2/3 of the population reported at least one ACE.

Interestingly, as our ACE score increases, so does the likelihood of experiencing chronic or serious health problems in later life. This is independent of addiction, although the risk of addiction also increases.

A high ACE score can be correlated to increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, addiction, and cancer. A high ACE score increases the risk of early mortality.

High ACE scores have a heavy toll on the public health care system, and the individual.

But, biomedicine does not address someone’s childhood when treating their diabetes. A child acting out in second grade is rarely has their home environment assessed.

ACE scores are intergenerational. If your parent has a high ACE score, they may be addicted or depressed. They may not be able to control their anger, and therefore can become abusive. This creates ACE scores for their own children, who, if unaddressed, can then pass these ACEs onto their children later on.

In communities that have experienced intergenerational trauma, like the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, ACEs are more prevalent and health outcomes are poorer. Furthermore, traditional practices, including traditional healing, were outlawed. By banning traditional practices, the Canadian government ensured that an entire population of people would suffer for generations.

But, there is hope.

As reconciliation is pursued, traditional healing is being practiced, and is making a huge impact!

Traditional healing addresses intergenerational trauma holistically alongside various medical concerns. It allows for holistic responses to a holistic problem. It allows for intergenerational healing.

Beyond Indigenous

Right now, traditional healing is separate from biomedicine. Therefore, the understanding of the body, mind, and soul as an integrated system is still limited.

We have a lot to learn from the traditional healing methods of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Addressing health holistically and allowing a patient room to express their concerns and emotions is really just the tip of the iceberg.

The CDC-Kaiser ACE study is evidence that our social and mental experiences has a profound impact on our long-term health. When we address those risk factors and experiences early, we are saving an individual from pain as well as preventing a drain on the health care system.

We already know that preventing chronic disease is more affordable than treating chronic disease. If we make this prevention holistic, and we implement the integrated approach of traditional medicine, we can improve health beyond the physical body and throughout our lives.

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