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Traditional Aboriginal teachings on mental health and wellbeing for the holidays

December 11, 2014
People skating on Lake Devo.

By Tracey King, Aboriginal human resources consultant, Ryerson University

Tracey King, Essinhs Kwe (Little Shell Woman) is Ojibway and Pottawatomi. Tracey recognizes that Aboriginal culture and perspectives are very diverse, and this article is a personal account written based on her opinions, teachings and experiences.

The holiday season is often spent with loved ones, family, friends and our community. It's about the honouring of each other, sharing food together, exchanging gifts or kind words, and just being there with someone. Sometimes, though, the holiday season can bring about feelings of sadness for a number of reasons, whether it be a recent break up, a loss or unwanted sad news about someone we know who is ill. It’s troubling to say the least to our spirit.

This past November, Cree Omushkego Elder and Traditional Teacher Joanne Dallaire, Shadow Hawk Woman of the Wolf Clan with ancestry from Attawapiskat First Nation, gave a teaching on mental health and wellbeing at Ryerson. The teaching I heard spoke to me and I hope it will speak to you as well. As Joanne explained, it is during these times of sadness when we need the most support.

Joanne opened her teaching by sharing that Aboriginal people have always acknowledged emotions, or what western society refers to as mental health, based on our traditional way of life. The four dimensions of the Medicine Wheel (mind, body, spirit and emotion) teach us that every day we need to look inward at ourselves and express ourselves emotionally. As human beings we cannot avoid the emotional responses we have in our life.

In today’s western society, there is still a stigma attached to those who experience both short term and long term mental health issues. Yet Aboriginal people have traditionally embraced this side of ourselves, similar to our ancestors long ago. Joanne explained how sharing circles are a place where we can share our feelings and build that trust in our culture.

Not talking about your feelings prevents you from expressing how you really feel and unexpressed emotions are like poison to our health and wellbeing. In other words, when your emotions are not given an outlet, your heart becomes full and the unexpressed emotions can take over your body, often in the form of physical illness.

Many of us have acquired learned behaviors and actions over the course of our lives. Through our human nature, sometimes we can acquire addictions to take our minds off our hardships and struggles. Always remember that health, wellbeing and success come by honouring who you are and finding and accepting support when you need it.

In closing, I wanted to share some concrete lessons Joanne provided to help our community through the holiday season.  

  • We are all spiritual beings who have come to learn and to strive to live a ‘good life.’
  • Learn to express your feelings inwardly and outwardly through both self-reflection and sharing.
  • Do not be afraid to seek counselling or therapy to express your feelings and resolve issues.         
  • Explore the teachings of the Medicine Wheel to provide a model for holistic ways of living.
  • Feelings like depression and anxiety are natural; develop ways to seek support and heal.
  • Every day look at yourself. How are you in your mind, your body, your spirit, your emotion?
  • We have emotions; don’t let emotions have you.
  • We each have teachings to share to help others; tell your stories.

Joanne’s services are available as a support for the entire Ryerson community. She can be reached for counselling on professional, personal or Aboriginal matters at or 416-979-5000, ext. 6616.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact Tracey at 416-979-5000, ext. 4705 or at