I just attended a couple conference presentations at the International Congress of Circumpolar Health being hosted this year in Fairbanks, Alaska. It was good to catch up on some of the health research and statistics about northern peoples, much of it focused on Indigenous populations. The presentations laid out a scientific picture of the immediate and emerging challenges in northern health and sustainability. These challenges include very high suicide, cancer, sexual abuse, and alcohol abuse rates, in addition to poor health conditions related to poor housing, water, sewer, energy, and sanitation systems. Of course, the findings of this research is already known to observant people living in the North, but it is helpful to have data and research supporting our understandings. I left the conference reflecting on what bringing change to these many negative findings really entails?
I believe that solutions to these daunting issues must be grounded in a holistic understanding of the full circumstances that are generating them. This means that the solutions to these challenges must address the physical, emotional, spiritual, social, economic, and political context from which the problems arise. This is particularly relevant when addressing mental and behavioral health, where policy and regulation often dictate a very narrow array of solutions. These solutions aim to “fix” the individual rather than the holistic context in which that individual exists. The individual is well worth this focused attention, however, if the environment in which that individual exists is not also “fixed” there can be no lasting solution. This is no easy task, however to pursue solutions to the mental health dilemmas we face without holistic awareness of the problem is to be short sighted. For example, we must understand that poor mental health among Alaska Native people is largely connected with the current and historic trauma generated by colonization, forced assimilation, and stripped rights to self-determination.
It is astounding how many different people - from all cultures and levels of influence; from both inside and outside institutions and government - want real, fundamental and lasting changes in our education, healthcare, energy, political, and economic systems. Yet we struggle to bring change; as a whole we are stifled by old ideologies that are unsustainable and paternalistic. These deeply entrenched beliefs largely benefit a small percentage of the global population; leaving many to struggle with emotional, physical, economic, and social injustices. We must work to usher in change that addresses root causes of unnecessary suffering, injustice, and inequity.
I recognize that this change has to take place at all levels from local to global and that we all play a role. I give thanks to those on the front lines of change and those taking personal steps to heal and seek truth. My sense is that courageous leaders, willing to speak truth, have open dialogue about what is really happening, and discuss solutions many people currently consider to be "unrealistic" will emerge more often in the coming years. I look forward to contributing to that discourse :)