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Researchers to address gaps in mental health services for Indigenous university students

By Krista Baliko Posted: January 27, 2020 1:40 p.m.

Psychology professor Dr. Shadi Beshai and his research team recently received a Canada Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Project Grant worth $165,000 for his research project to address gaps in mental health services for Indigenous university students across Canada.
Psychology professor Dr. Shadi Beshai and his research team recently received a Canada Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Project Grant worth $165,000 for his research project to address gaps in mental health services for Indigenous university students across Canada. Photo: U of R Photography

In Canada, death due to suicide among Indigenous people is three times higher than for non-Indigenous people. Across the country, many First Nations have been declaring states of emergencies as suicides in these communities reach crisis levels.  And while depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental health conditions in Canada, Indigenous people suffer from these debilitating conditions in greater numbers and severity. 

While non-Indigenous Canadians can struggle to access timely and effective mental health treatment, there’s an even greater gap in availability and access to treatment designed specifically for Indigenous people. Indigenous youth, in particular, are lacking treatment options that are culturally sensitive and appropriate. 

Thanks to a federal grant, a promising new program will help to address the scarcity of services. 

Dr. Shadi Beshai, associate professor of psychology, recently received a Canada Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Project Grant worth $165,000 for his research project, Adapting a Mindfulness-Based Intervention for Depression and Anxiety Symptoms for Use with Indigenous University Students. 

“Indigenous people of Canada still experience major mental health disparities and lack of appropriate, culturally-sensitive treatment options,” says Beshai. “There’s is extra imperative to develop mental health interventions that are geared toward Indigenous youth, as this group faces several unique societal challenges, including facing increased systemic discrimination, lack of Indigenous-focused cultural education, and higher drop-out rates from post-secondary institutions.” 

Beshai explains that most current mental health interventions are based on Judeo-Christian principles which aren’t appropriate for the needs of Indigenous youth. 

This cultural mismatch between the treatment and the patient is often perceived as insensitive or inappropriate, which leads people of different cultures to either never consider using these treatments, or to quit soon after they start.” 

Beshai’s research team includes Dr. Brenda Green, an associate professor of Indigenous Health Studies at First Nations University of Canada, and an expert in Indigenous health and Indigenous Research Methods. Beshai and Green are collaborating with Elder Betty McKenna, who is the Elder in residence at the Regina Public School Board and who also provides guidance on appropriate research and mental health practices with Indigenous peoples and families. Misty Longman, director of the University of Regina’s ta-tawâw Student Centre (formerly the Aboriginal Student Centre), is another partner with the project. 

Beshai is excited to get to work and says “this research project is a natural continuation of my research in the areas of mindfulness and cross-cultural adaptation of psychological interventions.” 

Green explains that there will be three main objectives to this project.  

“We are going to develop a flexible, culturally sensitive manual for a mindfulness-based intervention to manage depression and anxiety symptoms among Indigenous university students,” says Green. “We will then pilot how effective this intervention is in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety among a sample of Indigenous university students. Next we will develop a model for adapting existing interventions to make them sensitive to the needs of Indigenous peoples in Canada.” 

The team’s work will directly addresses the mental health-related disparity among Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

“I’m hopeful that this work will increase Indigenous youth engagement in effective treatments for depression and anxiety,” adds Beshai.

This research project has enormous potential to improve mental health for Indigenous people across Canada, addressing a gap that desperately needs closing. 

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