PhD Student approaches Aboriginal health from community planning perspective

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Lyana Patrick thought she wanted to be a doctor so she could help people with health issues. However, that was prior to meeting Dr. Leonie Sandercock, a UBC School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) professor, who encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D. in community planning.  

Seeing the connections

A member of the Stellat’en First Nation, Patrick has an undergraduate degree in history and creative writing and a master’s in Indigenous Governance, but hadn’t considered community planning as a way to influence health care – until she realised it offered a unique approach to solving issues important to her.

“I have often struggled to see how things are not connected,” she says. “I felt like [community planning] might be a welcome home for the many different strands of research that interest me. For example the intergenerational impact of residential schools on Aboriginal communities is a huge health concern. Understanding why requires understanding where we have come from. Planning encourages [a deeper understanding] because it integrates so many aspects of living.”

Patrick’s PhD focuses on the intricate and interrelated nature of social problems such as addictions and mental health in Aboriginal communities.

For her dissertation, Patrick will be conducting interviews with residents, as well as health care, policy and front line workers of the Downtown Eastside and greater Vancouver area, to better understand the conditions for Indigenous peoples living with addictions and mental health problems. While still in the early stages of her research, she hopes to contribute to a model for better informed urban planning, as well as more effective delivery of health care in regards to addictions and mental health in  Indigenous communities.  

Planning for change

“Planning, some people argue is about land use, infrastructure, transit, all sorts of things,” says Patrick. “But in First Nation’s communities, you can change the entire infrastructure, but unless you deal with health inequities, unless you look at the historical experiences of trauma, the Indian residential school system, and all subsequent things like disconnection from culture and each other, unless those issues are addressed,  it will be difficult to create long-lasting change in communities.”

Creating health and healing services for people of a wide variety of cultures and Indigenous backgrounds and experiences is problematic, Patrick admits. In terms of mental health and addiction, she finds treatment is often given for an individual illness. Although mental health and addition often go hand in hand, rarely are the two treated together.

“The western, individual model doesn’t work for native people, to solve many interrelated issues,” says Patrick. “That makes it difficult to execute changes within the system, or to support another perspective.”

Through her research she hopes to better understand the likelihood of creating a “continuum of care” model, which would address interrelated issues, such as addictions and mental health, while taking into consideration the community’s collective traumatic and historical identity.

How Patrick will make a difference

“What I hope to contribute is to bring together all of the evidence, to hopefully make a persuasive and powerful argument as to why the continuum-care model is so necessary and so important.”

Patrick hopes that her research will contribute to a growing body of literature on Indigenous planning and that it will help give planners tools they can use in working with diverse communities. She notes that in the past community planning hasn’t responded to Indigenous needs or their vision for their own communities. She hopes that her model will help planners work more effectively in partnership with Indigenous communities, and will allow them to take into consideration “therapeutic planning” as a powerful strategy for meeting community needs.

“This isn’t a revolutionary idea,” she says of a continuum of care model. “But, what I bring is a broader perspective, and the results will potentially impact more people than might have been possible in medicine, and will hopefully address a broader range of issues than has traditionally been the case in the western health care system.”

Patrick recently received a Vanier Scholarship, one of Canada’s most prestigious scholarships, awarded to world-class doctoral students. The award recognizes exceptional leadership and scholarly achievement at Canadian universities and provides recipients with $50,000 a year, for up to three years.

“It’s a tremendous honour to win a Vanier scholarship,” Patrick says. “I’m humbled by this recognition. It inspires me to do my best, gives me the freedom to pursue my research and lifts a financial weight from my mind, which is incredibly helpful as I have a young child.”

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