Fighting depression and mental health with combat sports: Creating local champions

Lay Summary 

"As a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Aboriginal Community [...] my dream is to have wrestling/MMA in all First Nations communities in the province: Sheshatshiu, Natuashish, Nain, St. George's, and Conne River." (Ralph, Randolph; Past Head Coach of the Newfoundland and Labrador Canada Games Wrestling Team)

Literature suggests there is a greater risk of self-harm and suicide among Aboriginal youth in Canada compared to their non-Aboriginal peers, and that the rate of suicide in Labrador's Aboriginal communities is higher compared to the island portion of the province; a high percentage of cases have been associated with mood disorders, such as depression. Engagement in sports, especially combat sports such as wrestling, boxing, and marital arts, may have a positive impact on the mental health of youth. Currently, many Aboriginal communities have little to no access to organized combat sports.

The ultimate goals of this project is to develop, deliver, and evaluate a program to fight depression in youth in Aboriginal communities through the introduction of combat sports. The approach consisted of two strategies: to deliver a "train the trainer" course, and to build a relevant "community of practice"; to ensure that participation in the activities is sustainable. This program was based on two previously established, yet different, programs: BOX-ON! and Sport Is Your Gang.

On March 30, 2015, we visited St. Anne's School in Conne River (Miawpukek First Nation) to demonstrate to Grade 20 students the basic boxing and wrestling exercises and to conduct an environmental scan with community stakeholders (students, teachers, parents, and local health care practitioners) and to discuss the possibility of mounting the proposed program in Miawpukek, and, in turn, Aboriginal communities in Labrador. On February 20th, 2015, 4 selected "champions", youth from Conne River, NL, were invited to St. John's.

The aims for the visit of the champions to St. Johns were to:
1. Participate and train with high level coaches in wrestling and boxing.
2. Expose the youth to different training environments.


Aim 1. The funding allowed us to bring four youth and two high school instructors from Conne River to champion the wrestling and boxing program that was started in Conne River. The group came to St. John's and trained with the MUN wrestling team, Rock Athletics competition team, and the Avalon Boxing Club over two days (three sessions of training).

Aim 2. The youth were able to train with some of the highest level of wrestling and boxing athletes in the province and were shown what it takes to be a champion and to lead. We also exposed them to different multi culture food to give them a different experience here in St. John's.

Phase 2 of this project (scheduled for October 2016) will consist of evaluation of the program.

Health Research Unit (Community Health & Humanities)
School of Human Kinetics & Recreation
Quick Start Fund For Public Engagement
Conne River
St. John's
Newfoundland and Labrador
Aboriginal Peoples
Mental Health
Start date 
19 Feb 2016
End date 
21 Feb 2016