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Indigenous women can sometimes feel apprehensive or uncomfortable with their birthing experiences, particularly when they have to leave their home communities to give birth in the city, says University of Saskatchewan researcher Angela Bowen. She is undertaking two projects to address and improve Indigenous birthing experiences. (Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

A new program in North Simcoe county is offering mental health support for Indigenous families before and after birth.

The Chigamik Community Health Centre in Midland. Ont., about two hours north of Toronto, introduced its unique Indigenous perinatal program earlier this month to offer families and parents a year or more of support from a mental health worker.

Perinatal is defined by the World Health Organization as the period starting at 22 weeks into gestation until seven days after birth, but Chigamik is offering support through the entire pregnancy and baby’s first year.

Mental health support can begin as soon conception and is based on medicine wheel teachings that look at the body, mind and spirit of the client as a whole. It’s part of a growing trend toward returning to traditional, Indigenous-inspired practices to help new mothers.

"It allows individuals to be given the opportunity to access services that they may not even realize exist," says Jessica North, Chigamik Community Health’s manager. Jodi Blue is the Indigenous perinatal mental health support worker at the Chigamik Community Health Centre in Midland, Ont. (Courtesy of Chigamik ) "When we start to bring back these traditions that start right from the time of conception, we are brought into this world knowing our purpose, having that supported around us while we grow," says Jodi Blue, Chigamik’s Indigenous perinatal mental health worker.

Blue has worked in North Simcoe for a number of years and says there is a big need for this kind of program.

Informal surveys conducted in local Indigenous communities found there were few or no perinatal supports — and certainly a lack of traditional supports — for Indigenous women.

A wide range of services offered to clients through the program include housing supports, baby supplies, counselling and traditional healing. If someone is looking for one-on-one advice, like tips for self-care, Blue says she’ll go to their homes to assist them. Chigamik Community Health Centre team (left) Cassandra Forget, Jessica North, Mitch Akerman, Andrew Copegog and Alex King (Courtesy of Chigamik Community Health Centre ) "We also want to instill a little bit of that faith inside of them that things can and will get better and make sure that we are connecting the mental with the emotional and then filling in the other areas of their physical and spiritual self as well," says Blue.

Blue is currently the only Indigenous perinatal mental health worker, but Chigamik is working on creating an Indigenous doula collective that would be made up of ten individuals who could guide women through labour and new motherhood.

"These women want to be more connected with culture and want to get their children connected with culture, too," says North.

According to research done by Chigamik, almost 99 per cent of births in the North Simcoe area happen in hospitals.

"Part of all this is about bringing birth back to the community, when we think about traditional births, they all happen in the community mostly by Indigenous doulas," says North.

"We recognize how important that is to the community here and to these women that are with child or have children recently," she added.

The Indigenous perinatal mental health program is open to all First Nation, Inuit and Métis families within the North Simcoe Region regardless of where they live.

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