First Nations communities in Canada have long grappled with the impact of substance use disorder (SUD), which have been exacerbated by ongoing barriers to accessing necessary support services. Intergenerational trauma and the legacy of residential schools looms large in understanding the challenges faced by Indigenous individuals seeking help for substance abuse. Shedding light on the barriers that First Nations people encounter when attempting to access support for substance use disorders– particularly residential school survivors – and the lasting effects of intergenerational trauma is key to moving forward.
The Residential School system has left an indelible mark on the First Nations community. Many survivors of residential schools experienced physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, cultural suppression, and forced assimilation. The traumatic experiences endured within these institutions have had far-reaching consequences, including increased vulnerability to substance use disorders and mental health challenges among survivors and subsequent generations.
The cycle of intergenerational trauma brings up a complex set of circumstances that makes accessing appropriate support extremely difficult. Abstinence-only models add to the stigma that pushes people out of their communities and onto streets of urban areas.
First Nations individuals face considerable stigma and discrimination when it comes to substance abuse. Negative stereotypes perpetuated by society can prevent individuals from seeking help due to fear of judgment or further marginalization. Women and families fear that they will lose access to their children if they reach out to authorities. The cultural bias prevalent within some healthcare systems also impedes access to culturally appropriate treatment options.
Evidence shows that many find it difficult to access support services that are culturally relevant and respectful of Indigenous experiences. Effective treatment and recovery programs should incorporate Indigenous healing practices, traditional knowledge, and spiritual connections to effectively address substance use disorders and foster accessibility and destigmatization. The lack of such services, particularly in remote and under-resourced communities, limits access to care.
Geographical barriers present another challenge, especially for those residing in remote and isolated First Nations communities. Limited transportation infrastructure, lack of funding, and a scarcity of trained professionals within these regions limit access to substance use disorder treatment and support services. Insufficient resources and long wait times for specialized care exacerbate this issue, leading to delayed or inadequate interventions.
Socioeconomic factors, such as poverty, unemployment, and inadequate housing, contribute significantly to substance abuse issues in First Nations communities. Limited access to stable employment opportunities, education, and basic amenities can hinder an individual’s ability to seek help and maintain recovery. Addressing these underlying social determinants of health is crucial for breaking the cycle of substance abuse and ensuring equitable access to support.
Recognizing and dismantling the barriers that hinder First Nations individuals from accessing support for substance use disorders is a critical step towards healing and reconciliation. There are currently 9 residential treatment centers in British Columbia, funded through the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (NNADAP), provided by this resource by the First Nations Health Authority. These programs incorporate Indigenous cultural knowledge and traditional practices in treatment for addiction and counseling, and are Indigenous-centered.
Resources concerning Indigenous harm reduction for substance abuse can be found here at the First Nations Health Authority.