Empowering mental health through play

Cindy JardineCindy Jardine, along with a team of academic and community partners, is changing the face of health research in Indigenous communities.

Her team is introducing Forum Theatre as a means of promoting mental wellness in five participating First Nations and Métis communities. The tool allows communities to explore challenging issues by taking part in games and other participatory activities together, eventually creating a play in which audience members enact possible solutions to the crisis being addressed. This “strength-based” model of intervention, says Jardine, has been embraced by the Indigenous communities she’s partnered with.  

Jardine, a Canada Research Chair in Health and Community, and her team want this to be a sustainable intervention for communities and are training community members to make the project their own.  This will ensure that the initiative can continue long after the research project is finished. As Jardine puts it, they’re collectively working to both “decolonize and Indigenize Forum Theatre.”

Community members are incorporating culturally appropriate images and local language into the games. Some find the games and related activities so effective they have no immediate plans to mount a play. Some invite participation from all age groups; others focus on youth and children. One community is even considering producing a radio play together.

Communities are also actively exploring incorporating Forum Theatre into their existing programs and structures. Members of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation are integrating the games and imaging exercises into their community training and wellness programs. They’ve adapted some of the activities to work as a language-learning tool, helping Elders share important cultural knowledge with the younger generation.

A community school within the Yelllowknives Dene First Nation used Forum Theatre to help students be “more kind” to each other. They just weren’t getting along, the principal told Jardine, and she asked the team to introduce the kids to some activities. “It worked so well with grades nine through 12,” says Jardine, “that they invited us back two days later to work with grades seven and eight.”

Young people were willing to travel more than an hour round trip between communities several times a week just so they could participate in as many sessions as possible. These kids are learning “there is a way to feel good and have fun together that doesn’t involve some of the other things that tempt people in those age groups (such as) drugs and alcohol,” says Jardine.

What makes Forum Theatre so effective? Because it’s fun and engaging, it’s a “safety net,” says Jardine, “that gets people immediately to a happy place, a trusting place, where they can then look at some of the harder issues, where there’s a lot of trauma involved.” It also combats social isolation. This is exactly the purpose of her research, she says—bringing communities together into a place of strength, so they can combat their unique health issues from the inside.

Allowing the needs of individual communities to take precedence has meant Jardine has had to be flexible. “We’re trying to be responsive to what they need when they need it.” And it’s working. “Every community has come together in trust and co-operation,” she says. “I’ve never had a tool that has worked so amazingly well in engaging communities.”

Jardine believes the benefits of this project will last generations. “People are excited about the method as a means of bringing people together in a positive way and the effects are going to continue long after (the project) is over.”

The following communities participate in the Forum Theatre research project:
  • Gunn Métis Local 55 (Lac Ste. Anne Métis)
  • Frog Lake Cree First Nation
  • Heart Lake Cree First Nation
  • Yellowknives Dene First Nation (including the communities of Ndilo and Dettah)
  • Siksika Blackfoot First Nation

Cindy Jardine’s research was funded in part through the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.

Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation