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Indigenous children expresses pain through art

The Aboriginal Children’s Hurt and Healing Initiative wanted to answer one simple question: What does pain look like? Not what it feels like, but what pain would look it if you had to express it on paper, or in this case, canvas.

In an interview with CBC News, John Sylliboy, community research co-ordinator with the Aboriginal Children’s Hurt and Healing Initiative, said: “Aboriginal children feel and experience pain just like anyone else. It’s just that they express their pain very differently. They don’t necessarily verbalize their pain, or they don’t express it outwardly through crying or through pain grimaces. A lot of kids, they just suck it up. That’s what they say all the time. ‘We just suck it up.'”

The research study spawned in 2008 when Margot Latimer, a clinical scientist at the Centre for Pediatric Pain Research at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, observed there was no First Nations youth being referred to their pain clinic at the IWK hospital.

One of the paintings from the children

“My painting is about pain and the black represents how she feels inside. But she has like this white kind of atmosphere and it separates it from her pain.” – Artist, 16-year-old

Chronic illness in First Nations communities is almost three times higher than in the general population. As co-principal investigator with the Aboriginal Children’s Hurt and Healing Initiative, Latimer added that Aboriginal children are especially vulnerable, with higher rates of dental pain, ear infections, and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. However, they are less likely to be treated for their illness.

The beginning of the research looked at why children are “stoic” – defined as a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining. Latimer and her team found that a “complex mix of factors have led to a cultural divide for First Nations children in pain, and non-Aboriginal health care providers.” She added: “These children are socialized to be stoic about their pain, to hold in their pain. We heard repeated stories about needing to be brave, [it’s] a weakness to show pain.”

Cultural traditions, along with the residential school system, are some of the reasons for Indigenous kids to become stoic about pain and hurt.

One of the painting in the collection

This picture was painted by an 11-year-old and shows a child crying and in some form of pain.

These children were asked to participate in an art workshop where they transformed blank canvasses into images of physical pain. The images painted were sometimes dark and sometimes hopeful. Latimer also noticed that the kids starting drawing emotional pain, which provided insight on what kids thought about loneliness, sadness, darkness, bullying, and hopelessness.

In an interview with CBC News, Sylliboy stated: “To these clinicians who are just asking about physical pain and not looking at emotional pain as well, it is important, because Aboriginal kids are showing us that there is no difference between emotional and physical pain. It’s just pain.

One of the paintings in the collection

“I drew two sides of one story. It’s about emotional pain. They can put on a smile throughout the day and pretend to laugh, and have a fake smile, but really on the inside they feel so lost and alone in the dark.” – Artist, 16-year-old

Latimer hopes that her research will shine light on how clinicians can create a safe space for children when they come to the hospital. It’s important for children to feel like they can connect and trust their physician. Latimer concluded: “When they come to the health centre, or a physician or a nurse practitioner, they want to tell their story, but we do not train health professionals to assess pain that way. We train health professionals to assess pain based on zero to 10. We assign a number of intensity to it.”

With the assistance of partial funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Aboriginal Children’s Hurt and Healing Initiative will expand their research to six additional Indigenous communities.

The meaningful artworks are currently on display at the Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto and is expected to travel to other Canadian cities in the coming months.