Poor Health Care and Food Security among Factors that Determine Higher Mental Distress among Inuit

The social determinants of health, including income, health care services, food security and housing, shape the health of the Inuit population.

Inuit women had higher average mental distress scores than Inuit men, according to a recent Statistics Canada report on the social determinants of health of higher mental health distress among the Inuit. Difficulty accessing health care, low or very low food security, living with physical chronic conditions and moderate to weak family ties were the four key predictors of mental health distress among Inuit men and women.

There were also gendered differences in the factors that determined mental health distress. Specifically, factors that were significantly associated with higher mental distress for Inuit women were:

  • women who had ever tried drugs
  • living in a crowded household
  • living in a dwelling in needed repairs beyond regular maintenance or minor repairs.

For Inuit men specifically, factors that were significantly associated with higher mental distress for them were:

  • having educational attainment of less than high school as well as post-secondary completion
  • having a personal or family history of residential school attendance
  • being injured in the last 12 months.

Food security is the ability to have adequate and appropriate food. Households with low to very low food security is a reality for 53% of Inuit aged 18 years and over.

The high level of food insecurity is linked to a number of factors including high unemployment and underemployment rates, low income, the lack of access and availability of adequate quality foods including traditional foods such as arctic char, seal meat, whale and caribou, and the high cost of living.

According to the Northern Food Basket, it costs $360 to $450 a week to provide a healthy diet to a family of four living in northern regions compared to $200 to $250 for the same basket of food in southern Canada.

At the same time, the median income for Inuit men and women was lower than that of non-indigenous men and women in 2010. The median income for Inuit men was $23,016 and $21,008 for Inuit women compared to $36,668 for non-indigenous men and $24,825 for non-indigenous women. (See Fig. 1) According to Statistics Canada, Inuit men experiencing low or very low food security were more than two and one-half times more likely to be in higher mental distress than men who had moderate to high food security.

Inuit Median Income

Health care services continue to be inaccessible and inadequate to meet the needs of the Inuit people. In 2012, 14% of Inuit reported unmet health care needs in the past 12 months compared to 10% of the Canadian population. During the same period, 59% of Inuit had consulted a medical doctor, and 49% had consulted a nurse; compared to 79% of all Canadians who had consulted a medical doctor, and 12% that had consulted a nurse.

Additionally, a number of health care needs of the Inuit people are also a result of overcrowded dwellings or dwellings in disrepair including respiratory infections and tuberculosis (TB).  The reported incidence rate of TB for Inuit was almost 254 times the rate for the Canadian-born non-indigenous population.

Inuit women were twice as likely of being in higher mental distress when they did not receive health care when they needed it compared to women without challenges to accessing health care.

Inuit women living with physical chronic conditions were also over one and one-half times more likely to be in higher mental distress. As well, Inuit men living with physical chronic conditions were twice more likely to be in higher mental distress than men who do not have chronic conditions.

Mental distress is one factor among many that is attributable to suicidal thoughts and suicides. Suicide is one of the many preventable deaths among Indigenous Peoples including the Inuit. Inuit individuals in higher mental distress were more likely to have had suicidal thoughts than those who did not experience such stress. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the suicide rate for Canadians is 15 per 100,000 individuals; for the Inuit in Northern Canada the rate was 60 to 75 per 100,000.

In 2012, almost a quarter (23%) of Inuit 18 years and over had seriously considered suicide at some point in their life. The suicide rate for Inuit youth is 11 times the Canadian national average.

The higher levels of mental distress among the Inuit people are complex with interlinking social determinants of health. Addressing inequities and disparities in the lives of the Inuit people can close many of the gaps, resulting in opportunities and a quality of life that approaches what we all enjoy in the rest of Canada.

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