According to the WHO (World Health Organization), traditional medicine is "the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness." Based on traditional knowledge, Indigenous medicine in Canada has developed over generations and existed long before the advent of modern medicine. First Peoples approach to healing is a holistic one largely based around the concept of the medicine wheel and reliant on naturally sourced medicine. It is still practiced today, often alongside or in complement to modern medicine.
The impact of colonization on the health of First Peoples has been massive, from the introduction of diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis to the medical experiments performed on Residential School students. Unsurprisingly, then, modern medicine and the Canadian healthcare system, more specifically, presents a number of problems for the Indigenous patient. Accessibility to healthcare due to location of reserves or language or cultural barriers is one concern. Linked to this is the feeling of alienation that many Indigenous patients experience when dealing with Western medical practices and institutions. Finally, Indigenous patients tend to experience discrimination due to systemic biases. These issues are being fought by creating more opportunities for Indigenous healthcare workers as well as by integrating traditional healing practices into treatment.
Indigenous people in Canada face a number of unique challenges in terms of mental health, all of which are largely the result of colonizing practices such as residential school and other types of disenfranchisement. Suicide rates amongst First Nations and Inuit communities is as high as six to 11 times the national average. This is particularly alarming because a number of the victims of suicide are young people. Depression amongst First Nations communities is also marginally higher than the national average; however, Inuit populations experience far lower rates of depression. Finally, despite the stereotypes, drug and alcohol use amongst Indigenous communities is actually at a lower rate than the non-Indigenous populations (66% vs. 76%). However, while less Indigenous adults use alcohol and drugs, those who do are more likely to be admitted for substance abuse than adults in other populations, so alcoholism is still an issue amongst these communities. Living in Ottawa, we have access to the Wabano Centre which is an excellent place to see the holistic approaches to healthcare practiced by Indigenous communities.
The Medicine Wheel is used in many Indigenous communities and represents a holistic approach to nature, the body, the world, etc.