Health Canada studies from 10 years ago show PTSD in First Nations at alarming rates


PTSD 'epidemic' in aboriginal communities

Residential school survivors among the many with common symptoms linked to the disorder


 PTSD ‘epidemic’ in aboriginal communities

Gerald Kiesman is a First Nations member who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. Writing and doing art are key tools for managing his condition.

Photograph by: Ty Hooper

Gerald Kiesman was a young First Nations man whose life was stable until a former National Hockey League player publicly confessed to abuse he had suffered as a child.

Sheldon Kennedy's revelations in the mid-1990s about being sexually abused by his hockey coach triggered memories for Kiesman, now 49, about the abuse he'd suffered himself when he was nine years old.

The effect on his life was dramatic. He developed post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered flashbacks and anxiety.

"It totally changed my way of living, it impacted my education, employment, sports and recreation activities," he said.

It also put him squarely among the large number of First Nations and residential school survivors battling the same affliction, at rates far higher than the widely publicized PTSD rates in the Canadian military.

A report in the Journal of Aboriginal Health in 2009 noted that a 2003 study on B.C. residential school survivors put PTSD rates as high as 64 per cent. Some believe these rates are far higher in some First Nation communities.

Michael Pond, an author, social worker and psychologist who has worked with First Nations communities for more than 40 years, estimates PTSD rates could be as high as 90 to 95 per cent. "It's rampant, it's epidemic, I believe."

By contrast, various studies have shown the prevalence of PTSD in the Canadian military is anywhere from two to 10 per cent.

Kiesman's first reaction to his flashbacks and anxiety was to head to his local health centre in Prince Rupert. The doctor's only remedy was a prescription for antidepressants, which Kiesman later tore up.

He had other ideas about how to release the negative energy inside him: His first outlet was writing and art.

"I did journal writing and I did a lot of native art, and I'd never done native art before," said Kiesman, whose mother's ancestry is Haida from Old Massett Village.

Turning his attention to researching and educating himself about PTSD, he moved to Victoria to take a professional counselling course, and later founded Restoring Balance Consulting, which provides workshops and training for First Nations communities dealing with trauma.

Kiesman said that after coming to terms with his experiences, he's now able to "focus on the future and moving ahead." He said the workshops he's done all across Western Canada have helped raise awareness about PTSD both in himself and in the communities he's visited.

But he remains concerned about the lack of understanding of PTSD in First Nations communities, specifically the lack of education and resources available on the disorder.

"When we go into a lot of First Nations health centres there's posters on diabetes, cancer, HIV, AIDS, safe sex, quitting smoking - those are a lot of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder - but we see very little information and awareness about what post-traumatic stress is and what it's causing to the people," said Kiesman.

"A lot of these people are suffering intergenerational effects of the residential schools."Both Pond and Sandra Olson, who works with the British Columbia Aboriginal Network on Disability Society, condemn the lack of sustained help for First Nations communities with high rates of PTSD.

"Usually they parachute in these professional experts for a weekend or whatever, they do these fancy workshops, you pay them a ton of money and then they fly out," said Pond.

Olson said these flying visits sometimes do more harm than good, as they open old wounds without offering any real closure. "People would come in, from outside the community, they would do a couple of feel-good workshops, they'd make everyone start to feel good and then all of a sudden they'd leave, and some of the workshops really opened up some of these really bad memories."

Daria Shewchuk, a Metro Vancouver psychologist who has worked in First Nations communities, said one of the greatest causes of PTSD in them is "generations of residential school experiences."

Shewchuk said she saw first-hand the effects of residential schools while working on a reserve in northern Canada in the late 1970s and early '80s at the start of her career.

"These little kids would come in, they didn't speak English, they were separated from their brothers and sisters. ... The kids were kidnapped on the trap lines at the age of five by government officials and forced to go to school," Shewchuk said. "I was horrified, I could not believe this was happening in Canada."

Richard Jock, vice-president of policy, planning and strategic services for the of the new B.C. First Nations Health Authority, said the organization is taking a number of measures to help First Nations groups struggling with PTSD and mental health issues. These include working more closely with regional authorities and trying to improve emergency reaction times for those in mental distress.

"In every region, mental health has emerged as the No. 1 priority," he said.The authority, the first provincewide health authority of its kind in Canada, in 2013 assumed the programs, services and responsibilities formerly handled by Health Canada's First Nations Inuit Health Branch - Pacific Region.

Tyler Hooper is a recipient of the Langara College School of Journalism's Read/Mercer Fellowship, given annually to four deserving students to produce a piece of journalism that will add to the dialogue on an issue of public concern. The award is named in honour of Province columnist Jeani Read and her playwright husband Michael Mercer, both of whom believed in helping young journalists begin their careers.