What is new is not new: Why we need diversity in mental health

By Lisa Zimmerman, Manager of Equity Programs

At a training program last summer, I was part of a cohort of professionals from various sectors, looking to better understand diversity and inclusion principles. At the end of the third day, we were asked to divide up and sit with others from our various professions in order to discuss how to apply diversity principles to our unique Industries. As I looked around the room at groups of teachers, activists, communication specialists and the like, I noticed a lot of diversity in the colour, ability, gender, language of the professionals sitting at the other tables. At my own table, everyone looked like me: eight white women between the ages of 35-45 (approx.) One white male that sat amongst us. It struck me that our group of mental health practitioners was the least diverse group in the training session. I’ve noted this before and according to the training facilitators, it is common. It made me think about how those of us working in mental health could make our field more inclusive both in terms of the clients we serve and the people we train to work in the field.

I believe those of us in the field have a strong ability to pay attention to how our own experiences, judgments, pains, and biases can play out with our clients. We are trained to pay attention to these, so our personal experiences can support greater understanding instead of getting in the way of healing. What we are less apt at paying attention to is how practitioners and clients exist within a system where discrimination not only exists but permeates throughout the entire health care sector.

Much of the new research in improving mental health outcomes focuses on a shifting view of what constitutes mental health. What was once a mostly biological model focusing on symptoms is moving towards an integrated model that considers the whole person within their context. There is more and more research on the values of community, social connection, nutrition and time spent in nature as contributing factors to positive mental health outcomes across a range of conditions. This interdisciplinary person-centred approach is being adopted by various mental health institutions across North America.

This ‘whole person in context’ approach to mental health, while seemingly new in main stream mental health study, is actually not new at all. These principles can be found in many Indigenous models of health and wellness that have been practiced for millennia. Said another way: what is new to mainstream health is not new. The rise of meditation as a mental health practice is decades young in the west and centuries old in the east. Meditation was working well for people long before it was recognised as something worth studying in North America. What is new to mainstream health is not new. The recent documented benefits of forest bathing reinforce the deep connections to nature that is seen as foundational in many First Nations, Inuit and Métis cultures. What is new to mainstream health is not new. If you work in the mental health field, the hidden bias is that we treat western models of health and wellness as the gold standard. We treat different approaches as secondary and practitioners from different cultures as if they are only students. The devaluing of traditional Indigenous knowledge not only discriminates against the communities that hold it but also slows our progress towards better health outcomes for everyone. Taking a more Inclusive approach to knowledge means we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We need to include a variety of voices in the discussion of how to talk about mental health, treat mental health and support resilience in our clients if we truly want better outcomes.

On this week of #BELLLETSTALK, I am going to try and #endthestigma by listening to more people who have knowledge and experience I do not have. I encourage all mental health practitioners to examine our understanding of what good mental healthcare is, who we allow to define it and what kind of knowledge counts. This will stop us from losing access to vital information on traditional approaches to healing that we don’t always know we are missing.


Examples of studies highlighting Indigenous practices of well-being: