Fight Indigenous suicide by ‘fixation on wellness’

“Boy, God must have something wonderful planned for you”: this is the message the Anglican Church of Canada should be working to “embed” in the hearts and minds of young Indigenous people, says psychologist Canon Martin Brokenleg. Photo: Tali Folkins
Published April 4, 2017

“For 30 seconds, do not think of a blue horse,” psychologist and Anglican priest Canon Martin Brokenleg instructed a small roomful of attendees at a Toronto workshop March 27. “Nobody should be picturing a blue horse. If you’re picturing a blue horse, stop it. Do not think of a blue horse.”

Brokenleg paused only a few seconds before stating what was now obvious to everyone in the room. “You can’t do it,” he said.

Brokenleg, co-author of Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future, was in town to give an all-day talk at a suicide prevention workshop hosted by the office of National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald. His impromptu exercise was meant to illustrate a fact he said anyone working in suicide prevention needs to know: the human brain, when confronted with a commandment not to do something, tends to focus on the forbidden thing itself, while disregarding the commandment.

“The brain ignores the frame and just grabs the central idea. So, the more you tell someone not to do something, the more you embed that idea in them,” he said. “The truth is, ‘Thou shalt not’ has never worked. Only ‘Thou shalts’ work.”

What this means, Brokenleg said, is that the church should be targeting the suicide crisis afflicting Indigenous communities by a “fixation on wellness,” an intense focus on helping people—especially the young—grow to be all they were meant to be, and convince them—by both words and deeds—of their infinite worth.

“It’s not that you pretend there are no problems whatsoever; it’s that simply you have such a focus on wellness, on the positive image, on someone as she is meant to be, on a situation the way it ought to be,” said Brokenleg, who was most recently Director of Native ministries and professor of First Nations theology at the Vancouver School of Theology.

“As Anglicans, we have to be saying, ‘God wants you alive. Look at all these centuries when you weren’t here, and you’re here now. Boy, God must have something wonderful planned for you,’ ” he said. “That’s what we want to embed in people’s minds and their hearts.”

An important cause of suicide, Brokenleg said, is anger directed inward, and this anger is often the result of grief or fear that seems unspeakably vast. For North American Indigenous people, these feelings are usually the result of trauma, both individual and historical, passed along through generations. Some research has shown that for many Indigenous people, taking part in traditional ceremonies can have a healing effect similar to psychotherapy, because it allows them to express this trauma through words and symbols, he said.

National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, left, sings a hymn to introduce a talk on suicide prevention by psychologist Canon Martin Brokenleg, right, at a Toronto workshop Monday, March 27. Photo: Tali Folkins
National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, left, sings a hymn to introduce a talk on suicide prevention by psychologist Canon Martin Brokenleg, right, at a Toronto workshop Monday, March 27. Photo: Tali Folkins

A crucial element of wellness, Brokenleg said, is psychological resiliency, and this can be nurtured in young people by fostering the growth in them of four key traits: a sense of belonging, or being connected to other people; a sense of mastery, or awareness of their competencies; independence, including, crucially, an ability to manage their emotions; and generosity, which he said, benefits both giver and receiver through a kind of “invisible transaction.” These traits—explainable in terms of modern psychology yet derived from Indigenous tradition itself—when well developed in people, tend to mutually reinforce each other, he said.

“If you want to counter intergenerational trauma, you have to over and over have people experience these four,” he said. “They have to feel so connected, they know nothing is ever going to break their relationship with other people. They have to discover so vividly what it is they can do that they’re always going to be willing to contribute. They have to be so convinced that ‘I’m strong enough on the inside that I can get through anything; I can actually be a help to other people who need me.’ When you’ve got that, you’ve got people who step forward and help, and they start to get all the benefits of generosity, and it just keeps going round, and round and round.”

Building such traits of resiliency is becoming increasingly important not just for Indigenous youth, but for Canadian children as a whole, Brokenleg said, because children are facing more psychological challenges than ever. The social isolation that the Canadian way of life now puts people in, for example, threatens psychological harm comparable to that wrought by the Indian residential schools, he said.

“At the level of relationships, Canada is falling apart. Very soon all of Canada will be like residential school survivors,” he said. “No human being can live in as isolated way as Canada is forcing people to live.”

Attending Brokenleg’s talk were clergy and other church members from across the country, including Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Rev. Rev. Nancy Bruyere, the church’s suicide prevention co-ordinator for western Canada and the Arctic.

Hiltz said Brokenleg ought to be speaking before the whole church, because of the light his ideas could shine on Indigenous healing and reconciliation.

“You’ve brought into this entire discussion an element of hope,” the primate said. “I just want to say, Martin, I just was sitting here listening to you today and thinking, ‘My God, my God, this is the kind of person that we need in front of the whole church.’ We need you talking to General Synod.”

Bruyere said she was greatly encouraged by Brokenleg’s talk, because it seemed to confirm what her community has already been doing.

“You’ve confirmed…the teachings that were passed down to us,” Bruyere told Brokenleg after his talk. “We’ve been living them, and you’ve just affirmed them…You lifted me up today.”

Note: A correction has been made to this story. Canon Brokenleg is co-author, not the sole author, of Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future.


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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