Mental health and the indigenous

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By Penelope A. Domogo, MD

“The indigenous worldview sees health in the holistic sense, not demarcating mind, body, emotions and spirit, as differentiated from western worldview. So there’s no Igorot term for “healthy”. We have, in Kankanaey, the word “gawis” to mean “well” or “okay” in the holistic sense- mind, body, emotions, spirit. “

Mental health is a growing concern of modern society, especially when the covid pandemic erupted and there was lockdown. There is a general perception that, compared to urban communities, there is less prevalence of mental health cases in the rural indigenous communities. This is just a perception as we don’t have disaggregated statistics, unfortunately. Despite this, we will try to discuss mental health in our indigenous Igorot society.
The indigenous worldview sees health in the holistic sense, not demarcating mind, body, emotions and spirit, as differentiated from western worldview. So there’s no Igorot term for “healthy”. We have, in Kankanaey, the word “gawis” to mean “well” or “okay” in the holistic sense- mind, body, emotions, spirit.
Now, let us dissect a bit how an indigenous Igorot society is. I write from the perspective of an i-Besao (where I was born and raised), i-Sagada (where I am based now) and i-Bontoc (where I lived for 38 years).
In our indigenous Igorot society, people were all farmers, planting rice, camote, corn, beans, and basically the same crops which were meant for food on the table, and some for our pigs. Even if people were teachers (like my Mom) or had other jobs (like my Dad), they still tilled the land to produce food. Cash then was scarce so every family had to ensure their food supply. Stores were only in the town center and I don’t think they sold rice then.
I remember that clothes were “wagwag” or “ukay-ukay” which was termed “relief” at that time. We had uniforms in high school and I guess, the cloth came from Baguio and sewn locally. Shoes were non-existent or rare – these were only available in the city (no ukay-ukay shoes then). Slippers were optional but were available in the store.
Everybody owned land and a house. Since people were busy out in the fields or in school and office all day, houses were really just meant for shelter and sleeping, so there was no need for big houses. Igorot houses are one family houses. Those who get married are expected to live separately from their parents and unmarried siblings. Parents are obligated to provide housing thus the term “menpabbey” for the occassion when a daughter or son gets married in traditional ceremonies. “Menpabbey da so and so.”
There were community events like “begnas” to celebrate important phases of community life especially the rice production cycle. Rice is the most important food. Traditional wedding ceremonies or dadawak were timed to be in harmony with this rice cycle. These events followed patterns and are then called traditions.
In this traditional Igorot community, therefore, people had routine and order in their daily life and everybody did the same. There was no room for competition. In fact, the community people had to cooperate with each other so that they would all survive and be “gawis”. We developed the system and value of og-ogbo (mutual help), especially for those involving heavy or massive labor like planting and harvesting rice, building a house, weddings, wakes and burials.
Traditions like what we do in Igorot communities, “have been an important component of human societies since the dawn of time. They fulfill four key criteria for achieving the “Four B’s”, our senses of Being, Belonging, Believing and Benevolence…. And they make you believe in something larger than yourself; they give life meaning.” (oregoncounselling, Dec. 23, 2021)
In a sense, these traditions offered minimal choices in the indigenous society- in terms of food, housing, clothes, work, family. Everybody had to work or else they would not eat. You did not have to choose what you will eat for breakfast. Is it rice with fried egg or boiled egg or fried hotdog, or bread? or rice and vegetables? In the past, whatever you harvested is what you will eat. Research has shown that making choices is stressful. Kathleen D. Vohs, PhD of the University of Minnesota said “ the simple act of choosing can cause mental fatigue”. Their research found out that making a lot of choices can cause difficulty in staying focused to complete projects or handle daily tasks. The upside of minimal choices is minimal stress.
Aside from minimal stress, indigenous Igorot society has developed protective mechanisms to support individuals and families. Again these are part of our traditions. There are rituals for the vital events in life- birth, baptism (cord off), marriage, death. These rituals gather families and community together giving a solid sense of support to the concerned family. My favorite example of this is the “gobbao” when a baby is given a name after the umbilical cord drops off. Family and relatives gather in the home of the couple and baby and this becomes an occasion for teaching the new parents on how to care for baby and what to do in life in general. In the traditional community, it really takes a village to raise a child. Knowledge and skill transmission is through example, mentoring and practice. Thus there is no disconnect of what is taught and what is shown in action. Children, therefore, are not confused as to how to behave properly because they see adults exhibiting good behavior same as what they teach. Unlike at present where children and adults see a lot of conflicting models in social media. It is as if anything goes and this person says something and does something else. This would be again mentally draining because the child sees a lot of choices and since they are still young, their choices may not be wise causing problems like early pregnancy, failing grades, conflict with the law, etc.
Furthermore, in indigenous Igorot community, we also developed traditions to help us cope with major challenges in life. For example, we have the traditional ritual called “daw-es” for persons who had a traumatic experience like a soldier who killed somebody in war or someone met an tragic accident or the like. In modern parlance, it is like a defriefing but more than that as it includes prayers and rituals done by elders. During epidemics, we have lockdowns and quarantine (tengao – Bontok or ngilin – Besao) but only for days because diseases then were simple. So when the covid pandemic erupted, the ensuing lockdown was not new to us, except that this time, it lasted for more than a year.
Our indigenous society recognizes the important role of the family in wellness and prosperity (sumya) of the community. It recongizes that if each family takes care of itself, then all will be well in the holistic sense of the word. It also recognizes the value of cooperation, sharing and caring. That is why if we analyze our Igorot traditions, they fully support families and promote cooperation, sharing and caring. Everyone belongs and has a role to play thus we build resiliency and minimize mental challenges.***
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“Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.” 3 John 1:2


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