Traditional Native Healing Methods Used at Mental Health and Addiction Facility

Nearly three years ago, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) hired its first Aboriginal Service Manager – Peter Menzies. Since he started, Menzies has consulted with a wide range of people about the needs of Toronto’s 60,000 to 80,000 people of aboriginal ancestry. CAMH’s Aboriginal Service provides individual counseling and street outreach services to Aboriginals experiencing homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues as well as providing telephone counseling, professional consultation and educational services.

“CAMH has a vision that encourages diversity as well as respect for the client,” says Menzies. “CAMH’s policy framework recognizes the Aboriginal community as a distinct people with historical treaty rights. We have an obligation to integrate these principles of respect and inclusion into the strategic direction of our organization.”

Menzies has incorporated these principles into CAMH’s philosophy of client-centered care. He was instrumental in creating a position for Elder Vern Harper, who recently celebrated one year as the first native elder hired by a mainstream hospital. Elder Vern plays a crucial role as spiritual guide and healer for the members of the aboriginal community. He was well known in the community before he was hired and maintains important partnerships with agencies like Eva’s Place youth hostel; Native Men’s Residence (Na-Me-Res); Native Friendship Centre of Toronto; and The Meeting Place, a drop in centre used by a high number of aboriginal homeless men. Through Aboriginal Services, Menzies has been building these partnerships to ensure that clients have access to a wide range of culturally competent services.

CAMH is committed to being a leader in delivering mental health and addiction services in ways that are effective and culturally inclusive. This commitment is seen through the use of traditional native healing in treatment and care. Under Elder Vern’s direction, CAMH holds weekly healing circles for clients and staff. “The healing circle allows us to step in and share our experiences and good energy with each other,” says Harper. He goes on to explain that healing circles provide an opportunity to re-energize through prayer and meditation. These are taught as tools for survival. “Many aboriginal people have become disconnected from their culture,” Harper explains. “Keeping the culture alive is part of healing. If you don’t know who your ancestors are, you don’t know who you are.”

For some aboriginal people, this is the first time they have been exposed to the traditional way of healing which helps balance mind, body and spirit equally. In addition to healing circles, CAMH is currently finalizing its official policy on incorporating Purification Lodge Ceremonies or “sweat lodges” into treatment.

By providing these traditional native healing techniques as a choice for treatment, CAMH has demonstrated its commitment to being a leader in the area of diversity. Although Aboriginal Services is in its infancy, Menzies has many plans for the future. With the help of important community partners, he dreams of developing a crisis/assessment team and widening the boundaries of service beyond Greater Toronto. Plans for much needed research is underway with the hopes that the traditional knowledge nurtured in Aboriginal Services will reach a population trying to find a healthy balance between its past and its future.