Why transcultural approaches are indispensable in addressing mental health: a focus on Sámi Indigenous People

12 February 2023 | Curiously Intercultural, Research

Watching a herd of reindeer. This photograph is part of the collection Walking With Reindeer by Erika Larsen in which she tells a story about the lives of Sámi. Listen to her story about her work on YouTube here.

Written by Zaira Spanjersberg


Which definition would you give the word transculturalism? To me, transculturalism is not just a concept that describes a mix of multiple cultures existing together. Transculturalism is the will to understand the other, finding common values, and seeing the fruits of intercultural connection––to a further extent, to see each other’s difficulties, pain, and trauma. 

In my previous article about Sámi and reindeer in Lapland I wrote that modern societies could learn a lot from Indigenous perspectives in terms of climate change. Unsurprisingly, there is of course a lot more to learn about Indigenous cultures and in which ways Indigenous People are affected by sociological developments. To improve the quality of life of all humans on earth the needs of minor cultures should be taken into account as well. In this piece, I will look into Indigenous culture and mental health with a special focus on Sámi––a population that witnesses the extreme edges of our changing climate. 

Like many other Indigenous cultures, the Sámi culture is closely interconnected with its natural surroundings and deeply respects the environment. During my visit to a Sámi reindeer farm near Tromsø in March 2022, a Sámi girl explained about joike, a traditional way of singing in which you connect to your surroundings. “You can joike everything, a person, a tree or a rabbit, if that is what you want to flow with and show appreciation to”. Although it is certainly not uncommon for modern societies to show appreciation to nature, the Sámi worldview takes it a step further. Many Sámi still depend on environmental cycles for cultural survival, foremost related to reindeer herding. 

A study on Sámi populations and mental health

The American Psychiatric Association writes that some of the main factors that put Indigenous communities at risk in terms of mental health are historical trauma, intergenerational trauma, racism and discrimination, geographical challenges, the difficulties between traditional and modern living, and the lack of diagnoses and treatment appropriate for the Indigenous culture. An interesting book chapter from Northern and Indigenous Health and Healthcare, written by Siv Kvernmo, helps us to understand an important aspect of mental health among Sámi. 

In her research about Sámi-populated areas, Kvernmo highlights that prejudice, discrimination, and racism tend to play a major role in the studied groups in Lapland. The superior-inferior binary between the modern and Indigenous population is in various cases the reason why adolescent Sámi are at higher risk of developing mental health related issues in areas with a mixed Norwegian/Sámi population. In contrast, Sámi can count on stronger peer-support and cultural validation when they are the majority, and mental health issues are less common in Sámi-dominated areas. Cultural safety thus plays an important role in mental well-being. Furthermore, Sámi in Norwegian dominated areas struggle more with internalising (e.g. insecure feelings) and externalising (e.g. violent behaviour) prejudices. 

The link between mental health and climate change

Although the severe effects of racism and discrimination on mental health seem common sense, it poses another disheartening question: what are the implications of a weakening cultural presence for Sámi?

Unfortunately, many Sámi could increasingly be dealing with a specific collective trauma in the upcoming decades. As I explained in my previous article, the herding culture is under major threat due to rapid climate change in the Arctic lands. Earlier snow and ice melting results in a decline in reindeer survival rates, which means that herd numbers may drop rapidly which could lead towards the collapse of a centuries-old system of survival. Given the importance of the natural world to Sámi, the climate crisis does not only bring physical changes to the environment, but psychologically impacts the ethnicity as well. In turn, this might cause a variety of collective mental complexities.

Fortunately though, some initiatives are on the way to improve mental health among Indigenous groups. The Swedish government presented a new suicide prevention plan in 2020 that specifically addressed mental health issues among Sámi. While undoubtedly a very positive action plan, the fact that it is the first one for Sweden indicates that a lot is yet to be done in this field.

The importance of cultural sensitivity in addressing mental health issues

Increased awareness and action plans regarding transcultural psychology is not only needed in the context of Indigenous groups. An article in the Dutch NRC newspaper pointed out that psychiatrist Dr. Mario Braakman raised the alarm that the International Criminal Court in the Hague “lacks specific expertise on psychiatric complexities within people with various cultural backgrounds” as in the case of Dominic Ongwen, a former Ugandan child soldier turned war leader. The ICC ruled that Ongwen could be held fully accountable for his crimes, but Dr. Braakman pointed out that cultural sensitivity was lacking in the assessment, and a different approach could have led to decreased accountability (15 December 2022, p. 15). Increased transcultural efforts will not only uplift minority well-being––it will make the systems of our societies more just and meaningful. 

As traumatic experiences of Indigenous communities are still insufficiently understood by major institutions, it is of utmost importance to shed light on the complex challenges of Indigenous People across the world. 

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