Hope, healing, connection and wellness

An innovative, collaborative program of Joseph’s and Atlohsa Family Healing Services is transforming the mental health care experience of Indigenous peoples.

In nature, a tree stump that is broken or rotting begins the vital process of providing essential nutrients for the growth of new life. It’s one small way living things work together in harmony for the greater good.

The importance of doing just that is the concept of a momentous new program offered through St. Joseph’s Health Care London (St. Joseph’s) and Atlohsa Family Healing Services (Atlohsa). Called Biigajiiskaan (BEE-GAW-JEES-GAWN): Indigenous Pathways to Mental Wellness, this innovative, collaborative program aims to break down long-standing barriers to care faced by Indigenous peoples and transform their mental health care experience. 

An Indigenous women holding a feather over the head of a female Indignenous patient

Indigenous Peoples have experienced institutional trauma throughout the history of colonization, including within Canada’s residential school system and racially segregated Indian hospitals. These experiences have led to the loss of language, culture, a sense of safety and community. Still today, Indigenous community members continue to experience systemic racism and discrimination in institutions and many are reluctant to go to hospital or access help from health care agencies.

“We know that the rate of mental illness and addictions among Indigenous people is more than double that of non-Indigenous individuals in Canada,” says Jodi Younger, Vice President of Patient Care and Quality at St. Joseph’s. “And suicide rates among Indigenous youths are five times higher. There is clearly an urgent need for culturally safe, Traditional Healing programs as an integral part of care. We are proud to be to working alongside our Indigenous health care partners to help support and enable the provision of their services to the community.”

Co-delivered by St. Joseph’s, in partnership with Atlohsa, Biigajiiskaan is a referral-based mental wellness program that aims to provide accessible, culturally safe, specialized care for Indigenous people with serious mental illness, addictions and concurrent disorders.

The name Biigajiiskaan (bee-gaw-jees-gawn) is an Ojibway concept that describes how a broken and rotting tree stump feeds new life. It acknowledges the importance of all living things working together in harmony for the greater good.

“Due to colonization and systemic racism over many generations, First Nations people have been disconnected from the essence of who they are,” explains Liz Akiwenzie, Biigajiiskaan’s wellness knowledge keeper and cultural educator. “There is so much missing within the medical system for Indigenous individuals,” adds Liz. “It’s never been a place of safety. People don’t fully understand the historical impact – the depth of the damage caused by all of the trauma and abuse, the loss of identity, the disruption of families. The intent is to help them heal and get them re-connected to the essence of who they are.”

high angle view of Biigajiiskaan healing space with circular rug

Based at St. Joseph’s Parkwood Institute, Biigajiiskaan combines Traditional Healing medicine, Indigenous elder-guided care and ceremony with hospital-based health care practices and psychiatric treatment.

“We help them to understand – mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually – how they are put together, that they are connected to themselves, to the creator, to family, to community and to nation,” adds Liz. “In the Indigenous world view, everything is about heart, mind, body and spirit – we are all interconnected.”

Raymond Deleary, Executive Director of Atlohsa, explains that Biigajiiskaan is about creating a new Indigenous wellness model of care that transforms health care and mobilizes knowledge to other interested communities, organizations and institutions.

 two Indigenous women beating hand-held drums

“Through this partnership with St. Joseph’s, to the best of our ability, we are attempting to embody the true spirit and intent of the treaties and historical relationships that were originally intended to form a brotherhood and sisterhood between our Indigenous nations and the settler nations,” says Raymond. “What’s beautiful about this program approach is that neither partner is greater than the other. We each have gifts to offer to this service but the Indigenous community is where the strengths lie to address Indigenous wellness overall.”

Biigajiiskaan is guided by the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation’s First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework. The goal is to provide a hostile-free environment, services that are culturally-safe and Indigenous-led, with a focus on meeting the individual, cultural and health care needs of each client.

smiling woman with poster of Indigenous chief on the wall behind her

“Through this framework, wellness can be defined by achieving a healthy level of hope, belonging, meaning and purpose. That is what we are looking to inspire among our people,” says Raymond. “All too often, Indigenous people do not see themselves reflected in the majority of society. Being able to create a mutual space, in partnership with St. Joseph’s, where Indigenous individuals are free to be themselves and experience care and services that are being led by their own community, creates a sense of hope.”

Various services are available to Indigenous inpatients, outpatients and community outreach clients of St. Joseph’s Mental Health Care Program, or by referral through Atlohsa to the Indigenous population in the London-Middlesex and St. Thomas-Elgin County regions.  They include:

  • An Indigenous-led mobile outreach team working in-hospital and in the community, providing consultation, assessment, treatment planning/management, discharge planning and ambulatory services
  • A dedicated Indigenous healing space at Parkwood Institute Mental Health Care Building
  • Indigenous elder-guided care and teachings from knowledge keepers
  • Traditional Indigenous practices, such as healing circles, ceremony, smudging and drumming circles
  • Educational and mentoring opportunities for health care professionals and students

The program also addresses common barriers to discharge and care transitions for Indigenous inpatients and outpatients of St. Joseph’s Mental Health Care Program.  

Belinda Rogers-King sitting on a bench at Parkwood Mental Health Care Building

By providing culturally-safe and accessible mental health care to Indigenous peoples through an Indigenous lens, Biigajiiskaan creates connections with and beyond the Western-notion of mental wellness, and seeks ways to support community through relationships with the self, land and all of creation. It is through this holistic approach that Biigajiiskaan will improve the experience and quality of care that Indigenous patients and families receive.

Belinda Rogers-King is an Indigenous outpatient of St. Joseph’s Mental Health Care Program who was engaged in the early stages of the program’s development and provided input into the design of services. The program, she believes, is much needed and long over-due.

“Until you actually face discrimination because of your race, you can’t fully understand it,” says Belinda. “It’s important to have elder guidance from someone who understands the history to teach us where we came from and what has molded us, someone who has walked in our shoes because we are all survivors, not victims.”

For more information, visit Biigjiiskaan: Pathways to mental wellness.

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