Thompson Rivers University

Finding answers for Indigenous mental wellness

May 7, 2021

© 2020 Billie Jean Gabriel Photography. Nikki Hunter-Porter. Photo taken on the unceded lands of the Nlaka'pamux, Secwépemc and Syilx Peoples.

A TRU Master of Nursing student passionate about improving mental-health services for Indigenous people has received research funding so she can create change that will benefit others in the Secwépemc Nation.

Nikki Hunter-Porter’s one-year project is getting started just as nurses across Canada are celebrated during National Nursing Week, May 10 to 16, and Indigenous Nurses Day on May 10. This year’s theme is Answering The Call, which references nurses being on the frontlines during COVID-19 pandemic. Nurses like Hunter-Porter are seeing a serious issue that the pandemic has worsened: mental health.

Nursing Week student videos

Three groups of TRU nursing students have made videos to mark National Nursing Week.

Hunter-Porter is a member of the St’uxwtéws (Bonaparte) First Nation west of Kamloops who has worked in eight First Nations communities. She has seen firsthand the gaps that Indigenous people experience in mental-health services. As a second-generation residential school and ‘60s scoop survivor, she wants to make improvements that will culturally benefit future generations.

Although she’s in the early part of her master’s program, Hunter-Porter submitted a project proposal to Mitacs and Mental Health Research Canada that involved surveying mental-health workers and participants in Secwépemc Nation communities to pinpoint gaps that affect individuals, which in turn can affect entire communities. She will use Indigenous methodology, such as talking circles, to gather her information.

“From my perspective, I feel there isn’t a lot of knowledge in regard to Indigenous people and their history,” she said.

Hear from TRU nurses and graduates about the nursing leadership they’ve witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic:

The Nursing Now campaign aims to improve global health by empowering and raising the profile of nurses:

Nurses describe how their practice has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic:

While Western medicine takes the approach of separating the mind and the body, traditional Indigenous ways approach medicine incorporate the two.

Dr. Lisa Bourque Bearskin, a CIHR Indigenous Research Chair in Nursing and associate professor in the TRU School of Nursing, said she’s never had a graduate student in the first few courses of the program pull together ideas in the way that Hunter-Porter has done.

“Nikki’s research has a mental-health focus. We know there is a mental-health crisis, so we really wanted to highlight the role of Indigenous nursing-led research and its potential impact on the crisis,” she said.

The insight and knowledge Hunter-Porter demonstrated in her funding submission was so strong, it stood out and was easily selected as one of the 10 applications accepted from across the country.

Mitacs is a national, independent, not-for-profit organization. Director of Business Development and Indigenous Community Engagement, Candice Loring, said Hunter-Porter’s submission stood out — so much so, that she was asked to submit for a second round of funds.

A full year of research

“Her project was one of the top projects that came out of our national call,” said Loring. “Just after this call ended, we also launched a national Indigenous call and made the decision to award both (to this project) and double the funding — the most generous offering in the history of Mitacs — extending the project to two internships and a full year of research.”

Judy Sturm, manager for Aboriginal Mental Wellness with Interior Health, said Hunter-Porter’s research could create changes in the system.

“We will support Nikki however we can and look forward to using her findings to improve patient care,” Sturm said.

IH’s research department is also supporting the project.

Partnership with Interior Health

“Nikki’s work with TRU and Mental Health Research Canada is exactly the kind of collaboration our region needs to address the complex health-care challenges faced by local communities,” said Deanne Taylor, IH corporate director for research. “Exploring creative and culturally appropriate mental-health services for Indigenous communities speaks to key IH strategies, and we applaud the project’s commitment to patient-focused research.”

Akela Peoples, chief executive officer for Mental Health Research Canada, said the agency is proud to be part of building capacity mental-health research by supporting partnership projects such as Hunter-Porter’s with IH and Mitacs.

“We are particularly pleased to be supporting the work of a young Indigenous researcher. There has never been a more important time to support the evolution of our mental-health system in Canada.”

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