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Hope and Healing for Trauma

by Nicola on 2015-05-24

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Hope and Healing in Inuit Communities 

By Dr Nicola Davies

Defining PTSD

The Mayo Clinic defines Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a mental health condition that is triggered by a traumatic event. The trauma experienced can be either as a participant, victim or as someone who witnessed the painful event. These trauma events vary by environment and situation, which includes military combat, assault, rape, fire, chronic abuse, natural disasters, or acts of terror. 

The body-mind-spirit is literally stressed beyond capacity and cannot process the traumatic events while reconciling the feelings associated with PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD

Isolation and avoidance, hypervigilance and hyperarousal are just some of the symptoms caused by traumatic events. Physical isolation and “emotional numbing” are common responses to PTSD, while behavioral responses include not thinking about or talking about the event.

Meanwhile, the person diagnosed with PTSD may resort to compulsive or addictive behaviors as a way to escape from the emotional and mental turmoil of the traumatic event[s]. Some people who have suffered a traumatic event avoid their regular routines and relationships. This behavioral response is identified when the person avoids the place, person and/or an object which can be painful reminders of the event. This isn't always a a negative reaction however; sometimes a healthy distance is necessary during the healing phase. 
Following a disaster or a traumatic event, hyperarousal and hypervigilance [“The Startle Response”] is a common symptom that can become a negatively ingrained behavioral response – the person becomes easily startled or scared. This exaggerated sense of fear may reveal itself as anger or aggression. 
Treatment and long-term recovery for a PTSD survivor requires the ability to integrate the traumatic event into a revised reality or a “new normal.” During this transition, the person may experience vivid sensory flashbacks, sleep disturbance, anxiety, and/or feelings of grief and depression. When a person experiences a “flashback” of the traumatic event, some symptoms include a racing heart or sweating and nightmares.

PTSD and Inuit 

Identifying and treating PTSD in Inuit communities encompasses particular obstacles that must be considered. The primary events that can cause PTSD in Inuit include: residential school survivors, alcoholism, incest, and acculturation. Overcoming the stronghold of fear that dominates many trauma victims into silence and shame is prevalent in Inuit communities, especially its youngest. 
Inuit children who were forced to attend residential schools were separated from their families, communities and traditions. The trauma, resulting from sexual abuse sustained by the residential children, is carried with them through to adulthood, resulting in PTSD. In some cases, the victims of sexual abuse became abusers to the next generation, perpetuating a violent cycle of rape and trauma. The likelihood of reporting this abuse is minimal, which obscures the knowledge and awareness of the problem, and also hinders any possibility of treatment and recovery. 
In the case of incestuous rape, the circumstances are even more complicated. This is especially true if the offender is a parent or step-parent of the victim. Even when the family is aware of the incestuous assault, strained relationships, fear and jealousy prevent them from intervening and seeking help for the victim.

How to Heal as a Community
According to the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecological Canada, June 2013, Inuit resiliency, collectivity, and holistic views of health remain strong. However, the Inuit history of social disadvantage and limitations may contribute to form a sense of helplessness and hopelessness within some family groups. Such cultural pressures can make it difficult to sustain efforts for positive change.
Fortunately, a community’s support for positive change becomes self-reinforcing. For example, a changed mindset toward seeking professional psychological support where community members might begin to express encouragement and hope for those individuals. 
While the traumatic event may have been severe and over the course of many years, healing can happen. The first step to feeling relief from the pain is talking to a trustworthy friend or family member who can help you find a professional therapist who specializes in PTSD.  In some situations, medication is prescribed to people with PTSD to relieve secondary symptoms of depression and/or anxiety and/or insomnia. 
It takes a community to heal and recover from trauma and the resulting pain. In traditional Inuit culture, it is the responsibility of the community to take care of its people. Creating an environment of cultural safety is of paramount importance when treating PTSD within Inuit communities. Building this environment requires time and trust, as well as the establishment of connections between health care professional and community members.

Harnessing the Resilient Spirit

Inuit communities are well-known for their resilient spirit. Building on this type of strength to apply to a recovery program is a constructive strategy. Identifying the strengths and abilities within each person within the community is key to recovery. Inuit in recovery need to know that there are different healing processes for different people, and created specifically for that person’s overall well-being.
For those mental health care professionals working with Inuit, it is important to share knowledge about traditional Inuit ways of coping, which is also key to establishing trust. Following the traditional Inuit strategies of coping, it is important to present and fully explain available and current research results and coping strategies from Western counselling models. Blending the two cultures is an educational strategy that is generally well-received by Inuit. Over time, mental health care professionals are learning that Inuit want to retain the best of the old and learn the best of the new. 

Additional Resources for PTSD Treatment 

Nunavut government's department of health for specific initiatives to address PTSD can be found at
Kamatsiaqtut Help Line:
Toll-free at 1-800-265-3333 (7 p.m. -12 a.m. ET)
Kids Help Phone:
1-800-668-6868 (24 hours)
NWT Crisis Line:
1-800-661-0844 (9 p.m. -1 a.m. ET)
Programs & Services Alternative Name(s): 
Help Lines: 
Kamatsiaqtut Help Line
Kids Help Phone
Mental Health Links
Embrace Life Council
Inuit Mental Wellness
Mental Health Commission
Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Association for Mental Illness and Mental Health
Centre for Addictions and Mental Health
Government of Nunavut  Foster Care

Do you want to talk with someone right now?
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In Canada, phone 1-866-925-4419 toll free, anytime 24/7

Other free, culturally safe and private help lines

  • Women’s help line (24/7) 1-855-554-HEAL (4325)
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Contact your lawyer for assistance; or, phone Gayle McCarthy, Residential Schools Advisor, AWOC, 1-800-994-7477 or email:
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