Read our COVID-19 Response

The Current State of Research on Anxiety Disorders in Canadian Aboriginal Communities


Michelle Murphy


Oct 2, 2017


Oct 2, 2017



Photo Credit: Trevor Klatko

Sherry Bellamy and Cindy Hardy argue that “the blending of Western and Indigenous knowledge without ideas of Western superiority into mental health services may allow for a pathway of healing and decolonization for Aboriginal peoples in Canada.” They explore literature relevant to anxiety and Aboriginal peoples in Canada and draw attention to the limited data available related to Aboriginal communities. Bellamy and Hardy contend that research articles published through Western systems of knowledge create limitations as they do not access the “breadth and depth of Indigenous knowledge,“ because Indigenous knowledge is passed down through language and not the written word. In this paper, Bellamy and Hardy gather research from the three separate groups of Aboriginal peoples recognized by the Canadian constitution: First Nations, Inuit, and Métis.

The authors differentiate between fear and anxiety to characterize anxiety as an excessive fear of a threat that may or may not occur in the future. An individual’s quality of life may decrease when anxiety interferes with daily activities. Anxiety disorders often begin in childhood through phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder and develop across the lifespan to appear in adults and adolescents as social anxiety and panic disorders. Anxiety disorders are highly prevalent in Canada, with one in four people over the age of 15 experiencing an anxiety disorder at some point during their lifetime. Limited research exists on Aboriginal populations in Canada, and current studies have provided mixed results on the prevalence of anxiety disorders.

There are significant differences between Indigenous and Western models of mental health. The Indigenous model is more holistic, linking healing with relationships and connection to the land. Consequences of historical trauma and the lasting effects of colonization are emerging areas of research, and the use of Western empirical methods in studies has been critiqued as a form of continued colonization. Bellamy and Hardy stress that Western and Indigenous ways of knowing need to exist together, without a hierarchy, to uncover benefits from both systems and gain an understanding that the world can be viewed in different ways.

Many studies do not differentiate between urban, rural, and reserve settings, creating another challenge for researchers. This is a significant limitation because cities have unique challenges that may create higher risks for mental health disorders like anxiety. The Aboriginal population moving to urban areas is diverse and differs widely across factors like education, employment, income, and family structure. They may also become separated from their former social network, reducing opportunities for support. The authors believe more research is required to develop a better understanding of the urban Aboriginal population in Canada.

Anxiety disorders may precede depression and substance abuse and often begin in childhood. Research on Aboriginal populations is limited but essential for uncovering the needs of each community. A relationship exists between problematic alcohol use, historical trauma and the loss of culture and connection to the land; and it is critical to uncover underlying motivations for alcohol use. For example, Aboriginal youth were found to drink alcohol to cope with their anxiety, enhance their mood, and reduce tension in social situations. Bellamy and Hardy believe this is an important area for future research to contribute to the prevention of alcohol use in adulthood.

It is important to identify resilience factors in Aboriginal populations as knowledge gained can positively influence the health of communities. Current research indicates there may be a high degree of resiliency within Aboriginal communities and data from the general population shows that high-quality social supports may further enhance this. Bellamy and Hardy believe a need exists to identify resilience factors unique to Aboriginal communities. This will allow for a greater focus on supporting and understanding the Aboriginal community and their cultural identity.

Assessment tools should be culturally appropriate, and a full appreciation of the complexity and diversity of Aboriginal peoples is required. Differing worldviews between the client and assessor may create poor communication and inaccurate assessments. Western mental health services have been critiqued as a form of colonization because they require the client to “embrace traditions such as mind-body dualism, individualism, and exclusion of spirituality as factors in mental wellness.” These limitations make traditional healing methods and theories essential for Aboriginal populations.

Anxiety disorders are commonly found in the general population and are likely prevalent in Canadian Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal children may be exposed to multiple risk factors including poor living conditions, poverty, parents with depression and anxiety, and high levels of parental stress. Relocation to urban centers may create separation from important social networks, reducing the chance for support. The growing awareness of the effects of colonization and historical trauma on the mental health of Aboriginal peoples highlights the need for more research. There is also need to blend the knowledges to generate culturally appropriate mental health services that can manifest a “pathway of healing and decolonization for Aboriginal peoples in Canada.”

This is a summary article written by Michelle Murphy. For more information, please access the full document:

Bellamy, S. and Hardy, C. (2015). Anxiety Disorders and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: The Current State of Knowledge and Directions for Future Research. Prince George, BC: National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health.

Santé et bien-être, 
Santé mentale, 
Mental Health, 
Health and Wellness, 
👋 Hi there, Canadian Mountain Network uses cookies 🍪 to analyze our website traffic and to understand where our visitors are coming from. See our Privacy Policy for details.