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Breaking the silence on mental health

Elders and Youth land-based weekend retreat at Pirates Haven in Robinsons. Phyllis Cooper is passing on her knowledge to the youth on making medicine pouches and the sacred medicines. – Submitted photo

By Jaymie White Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

WEST COAST — Mental health is a hidden epidemic simply because one can’t always see the symptoms. Individuals across all cultures, ethnicities, and ages can fall victim to it. However, as more is understood about the complexity of mental health, more programs, services, and treatments are being offered to help those who are struggling. 

In 2018, the Newfoundland Aboriginal Women’s Network (NAWN) began its own program called Elders and Youth: Breaking the Silence on Mental Health, which is a culturally based, youth-focused project for Indigenous youth around the ages of 9-14. As youth develop a relationship with their Elders, and Knowledge Keepers, they are learning where they come from and their identity as a First Nation person will become stronger.

Co-ordinator Mary King said their program was developed in response to needs identified within the community. 

“Over the years, NAWN has been offering youth engagement sessions and programming within the community, connecting the youth with their culture. Through those sessions it was identified by the youth and families that there needed to be consistency with ongoing programming,” said King.

This program focuses on increasing positive mental health around coping skills and maintaining positive mental health while expanding knowledge and improving confidence. Collaborations with Elders and mental health professionals help youth learn how culture can be applied to become and continue to be mentally well.

“The ideal objective we have for the program is that it’s a culturally-based program where the youth are the ones focusing on what they want and their needs. We bring what the youth want to the community to learn about their own culture, to make the connection with the Elders and the Knowledge Keepers in their schools and out of school. It’s also to do with having a good relationship, not just with the youth and the Elders in the community, but also with having learned positive coping skills, being able to maintain positive mental health and connecting the mental health component to their culture to give that holistic approach to a healthy lifestyle and a healthy well-being.” 

Despite the pandemic changing their approach, engagement within the community continued.

“The pandemic changed the way the program was organized. The program co-ordinator at that time had to change the way they gathered as everything had to be virtual. This was very difficult because there were a lot of barriers. Many students didn’t have any electronics or the internet and all the supplies, and resources had to be mailed out and phone calls were made to check in. When they did get together online, they were able to continue learning from the Elders and grow friendships. Now that everything is getting back to a new normal, this past year again we are able to do more in-person activities, engagements, and gatherings. Our numbers have been steadily increasing daily.” 

They also have a school outreach program to help grow participation. 

“Back in May, we had visited the schools and told them about our Elders and Youth program, provided them some information, and we did a needs assessment to see what or how the programming would best be suited for the schools, because we understand the diversity of the different schools in Bay St. George as it’s a large geographical area,” said King. “We go into the schools twice a month depending on the schools, and we offer teachings with our Elders and Knowledge Keepers within the community, other organizations, Indigenous businesses, and we bring it to the students in the schools. Those that identify as Indigenous are now being connected through the schools, but it’s not through a set curriculum. It also helps for those who don’t identify as Indigenous peoples to learn about the culture as well.” 

Bringing the mental health component into the conversation is becoming increasingly important given the many significant changes and events currently taking place throughout the province. 

“Mental health has now become its own pandemic and it has been increasing as time goes by. We’ve had some life events and environmental events that have increased mental health concerns, and issues with certain people as well as others who may have never experienced it. So bringing the culture to the youth also helps bring it to the family and it gives a supportive environment for families, as well as youth, to learn about different ways that the culture can improve mental health and being able to make those connections.” 

The attendance numbers for the events offered by the group may increase or decrease because of different factors, but there is always a steady number of youth involved. 

“Depending on the time of year, the numbers can be upward to 18 youth at an event, which would be ones held during the summer months as other activities and school is closed. There aren’t conflicting times with anything,” said King. “We also encourage family members to be a part of the teachings and gatherings, to share the knowledge with the family, knowing the power it has in creating a healthy and supportive bond within the home. During the school year, we average about 8 to 13 youth attending. In the schools we visit twice a month and provide teachings to all grades, in which class sizes can range from 7 to 34 students in an hour, for 5 hours a day.” 

Those who have participated in the program have nothing but positives to say about their experience. 

“The feedback from the youth, parents, family members, community members, Elders etc. has been amazing. The youth are enjoying the program and are continuously reaching out for more opportunities to collaborate with other Indigenous organizations, groups, Elders and Knowledge Keepers regularly,” said King. “Parents are sharing that their children have made tremendous progress on connecting with others and their culture, that they have expanded into other community groups because they are confident in who they have become.” 

This promises to be another successful one for the program. 

“We would love to be able to expand. We receive community-based funding and, if it wasn’t for the community-based funding and the support they’ve offered, the programs wouldn’t be able to be offered the way they are,” said King. “So as long as we can continue having the support from communities, families, and youth, and the funding is there, the expansion can go very far. This year alone we went from just community-based gatherings, events, and teachings for the youth to now being in the schools – and they’re all schools within the Bay St. George area – so now hopefully within the next year we can expand again from the Bay St. George area and work our way around the Western Region.”

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