Workshop on Mental Health Protection of Indigenous Populations in Guatemala

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On December 2-4, 2009, Guatemala City was the venue for the workshop, “Exchange of Experiences on the Mental Health Protection of Indigenous Populations.” The workshop was organized by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO/WHO). Many representatives of the ministries of health were present as well as of indigenous organizations from Canada, Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama. There were also representatives from the National Autonomous University of LeĂłn in Nicaragua, Queen’s University of Canada, and Brown University of the United States. Pier Paolo Balladelli, Representative of PAHO/WHO in Guatemala; Xiomara Castañeda, Representative of the Minister of Health in Guatemala; Jorge RodrĂ­guez, Coordinator of  PAHO/WHO’s Mental Health, Disabilities and Rehabilitation Project; and Kate Dickson, Principal Adviser for PAHO in Health Canada attended the opening session.

The purpose of the workshop was to exchange experiences regarding mental health problems in the socio-cultural context of indigenous populations in Latin America and Canada, coping modalities, and health service intervention strategies. The workshop enhanced the knowledge of the participants who benefitted from the experiences of their peers. Another objective was to assess these experiences in order to identify priorities and create the most adequate intervention strategies while also maintaining respect for indigenous cultures and community participation. PAHO/WHO will use the gathered information to plan future projects and improve technical cooperation in this field.

Various problems that affect the mental health of indigenous populations were discussed during the workshop, including violence, alcohol abuse, natural disasters, acculturation, stigmatization, obstacles in accessing health services, and services that are not adapted to the culture of the population. Relevant aspects were analyzed, such as the importance of territory in indigenous cultures, the need for respect, the strengthening and inclusion of traditional medicine in public health services, cultural ways of expressing suffering, and the need for cultural facilitators in the context of western medicine.

The mental health protection of indigenous populations is a task of great importance and a priority due to the magnitude of the psychosocial problems many of these populations have historically suffered from, such as poverty, discrimination, and social exclusion. This is a challenge that requires a comprehensive approach, community participation, and support from many sectors.