By | Published On: November 20, 2020 |

Taking a look at the first of five sessions in AYN’s webinar series supported by Global Affairs Canada | © Isaac Demeester

The Arctic Youth Network webinar series got off to a rocking start on Thursday, October 29, 2020. The webinar titled Wellness, Strength and Balance in a Changing North spotlighted four speakers who dived into ways that youth (specifically in the circumpolar region) can improve their mental health. The strategies included activities that can be done on a day-to-day basis and practical methods for accessing region-specific healthcare services. The main theme of the presentations was reconnecting with and reclaiming culture.

The first speaker to share her lived experience and advice was Shania Young, an Indigenous woman from the Dog Rib Rae band born and raised in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Young completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Aurora College / University of Victoria in 2019 and has been a mental health advocate on behalf of the charity

Young had a very potent three-step approach to taking care of our own mental wellbeing, outlined in the table below. Young also recommended checking out the site Be There for more in-depth resources.

How can we take care of our own mental wellbeing?

A three-step approach

Check in with yourselfDo what you need to doSeek help when you need it
How are you practicing self-compassion? What activities are you doing to build yourself up?How are you actively building your self-esteem?

–       What self-care practices are you doing? Are you doing them regularly enough? Are you getting enough physical/mental activity

How open are you to reaching out for help?
What does feeling unwell look like?How are you looking after your body’s needs?

–       Are you getting enough sleep?

–       Are you eating a healthy diet?

Who can you talk to if you’re struggling?

–       Maybe a friend, an elder, a teacher, and/or a professional counselor?

As a practical suggestion, Young recommended that the time to answer the above questions is when you are in a mentally well space, so that when you are feeling down you have a toolbox to get the help you need. Once you have taken the time to be there for yourself, Young suggests you can then work on being there for others. The five golden rules of being there for others are saying what you see, showing how you care, hearing others out, knowing your role, and connecting them to help. In the final section of her talk she asked the main question: How can you change the mental health landscape? This led to the discussion of the Do Something initiative wellness for all. The initiative gives you a personalized recommendation for small ways that you can impact your community in a positive way; it’s free for anyone and accessible online at the Do Something website.

The next speaker was Juhán Nikolaus Wuolab Wollberg. Wollberg is a 21-year-old North Sámi and a Junior Reindeer Herder in Ballangen. He is a member of the organisation of youth in Sweden called Sáminuorra that raises awareness about the Sámi and their culture. He shared the information that almost all age groups of the Sámi people have high risk of suicide.

Based on his observations, he sees various factors playing a role in these unusually high rates of suicide. First, he said, was exploitation of the Sámi peoples, usually due to energy extraction. “I understand it’s good and that it’s good for the betterment of the world, but there’s always someone who has to pay a price and it’s usually the Sámi because we are just a minority and the needs of the many [usually triumph],” he said. Others suicide risk factors include hard and soft gender roles, where men are expected to be able to fix a motor and be with the reindeers and a woman’s place is at home taking care of every need of the men, like making the clothes, cooking the food, and taking care of the children. A third observation is lateral violence where groups within the culture go against each other. When Wollberg speaks Sámi or talks about reindeers other members of the community can feel attacked by him.

The Sámi have recognized all these challenges and they have responded by taking positive action. They developed SANKS, the specialized mental healthcare institute, so residents can talk to someone with a cultural understanding of the Sámi and avoid spending half of their one-hour session explaining why something would be considered bad in their culture. The next organizations that are beginning to help with the issue of mental health are: the Sáminuorra, a Sámi Youth Organisation in Sweden; Noeregh, a similar organization in  Norway; the Swedish Sámi Reindeerherding Organisation; and famous Sámis on Instagram including Mimmie/ Timmimie Marak and Maxida Marak.

After talking about large-scale organizations, Wollberg cited personal example of things he does to improve his mental health. These include traditional handcrafts like making gáktis, which help him feel connected to his culture and specifically to his grandma. Wollberg also likes to walk his dog and to cook awesome food. He recently read that: “your room is kind of like your headspace and if it’s messy, it kind of reflects your mental space,” so he likes cleaning his room.

Next to speak was Gert Mulvad, MD, GP, PhD, a family physician at the Centre for Primary Health Care in Nuuk, Greenland with a research focus in traditional food risk and benefits and family health. He is involved in many committees in the areas of health care delivery, research, and education in Greenland. Internationally, he is active in the AMAP Human Health working group, Committee for Inuit Circumpolar Health, and is chair of the Arctic Health and Well-Being Network under the University of the Arctic.

Mulvad focuses on family and is working on building capacity to move health and wellbeing forward in Greenland. He believes it is very important to increase the amount of research and education from local sources versus the huge amounts of research coming from outside sources. Greenland became a self-government only ten years ago, a huge milestone in their equality and autonomy and the recognition of their language by the international community. Mulvad thinks that the people of Greenland need to find their own definition of what health and “the good life” is and to feel capable of taking care of their own lives. On the Lancet Commission on Arctic Health they are working on developing what the people of the Arctic feel is necessary to support their mental health and well-being, so they can tell global health ministers how it is to live in the Arctic. They are using technology to get better health in the area. For example, the iPhone can be used to communicate with specialists from other areas and can even host tools to look into the eardrums.

Mulvad also went into a personal anecdote showing a picture of his son and young men who all hunt together. They are building a cabin together in nature where they can hunt reindeer in the winter and boat in the summer. Collecting and preparing food and eating together as a family signify health and well-being for everyone in the community. He showed a picture of his family and his food and he stressed that food and sitting in community tells a story and is an essential part of protecting mental health and well-being.

The last speaker to speak was Jukipa Kotierk, an Inuk and Quechuan with ties to Ecuador who currently lives in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Inuit Nunaat. She started her presentation with a statement that hit hard: “I am 26 and I live in Iqaluit, Nunavut, and I am Inuk. Statistically when it comes to life promotion and suicide prevention, I have already exceeded the age of youth that are typically lost to death by suicide, unfortunately.” That statement alone encompasses the severity and the prevalence of mental health issues. She explained that there exist social determinants of health from the Inuk perspective that are necessary to ensure health and safety, including food security, culture and heritage, equality of early childhood development, a clean and safe environment, mental wellness, personal safety, security, income distribution, social equity, and family strength.

In her personal experience she has found that reclaiming herself as an individual and reclaiming her Inuk culture have helped on her mental health journey. Kotierk clearly outlined her goal that she hopes that the space she takes up will influence others to speak and share their mental health journeys. Kotierk said many quotable phrases throughout her presentation. When she said she is “reclaiming myself, my culture, my access to my body. Feeling human in and of itself,” it resonated across the screen. “Feeling human in and of itself,” those are powerful words. Kotierk said that on a daily basis she fights anxiety and imposter syndrome, the feeling that one is a fraud and is undeserving of their accomplishments. She fights these feelings by doing breathing exercises, feeling present in the moment to reclaim her time, bringing herself back to her body by feeling the five senses (what does she see, what does she taste), and through these things she begins to remember all the qualities that make her human. Moving on, she thinks about what gives her that spark, that love for life, and tries to increase the number of those experiences that bring her joy and “life her up?”  It may sound silly, Kotierk said, but in grade three she decided for herself that she was her own best friend, advising listeners that loving yourself and being kind to yourself are pillars of mental health. If it feels more natural to be kind to others and then learn how to be kind to yourself, that also works.

She ended her talk with the words building and gratitude, being thankful for one another and our lived experiences saying, “We are all building in ways we don’t even know.”

The talk ended in a group discussion. An audience member asked how people from outside the circumpolar region and outside these communities could act as allies. Juhán shared a personal story where when he was young, he was bombarded with dishonest questions about his culture by six other young boys. He felt powerless and like no matter what he said it would be wrong. His voice was taken from him. He encourages people to show up and to say something if they see these forms of oppression. Other people were there in the lunchroom who could have said, “Yo, that is not okay,” and that would have made all the difference. Juhán advised allies to step in, to “take up the space, and then give it back to us.” Building relationships and honestly caring for one another is one of the best ways to care for our own and others mental health. Be an ally for yourself and for others. Step in, take up space, and then give it back.

Other mental health resources mentioned during the webinar:

We Matter Campaign

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami

Project Creates

Northwest Territories:

NWT Helpline, available 24/7 – 1-800-661-0844

Kids Help Phone, 1-800-668-6868 or text CONNECT to 686868

Community Counselling Program

Strongest Families Institute

Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation

About the Author: Angelina Giordano

Angelina Giordano
Angelina Giordano is focused on mitigating the effects of climate change, fighting for environmental justice, and creative writing. She finished her BASc. Environment degree at McGill University and is currently working for the Energy consulting firm GEV Corp., and the law firm Giordano & Associates, Ltd. During her time at McGill she was VP Events of the McGill Energy Association, wrote articles for The McGill Tribune and competed on the McGill Figure Skating Team.

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