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 first speaker to share her lived experience was Shania Young, an Indigenous woman from the Dog Rib Rae 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.

How can we take care of our own mental wellbeing?

A three-step approach

Check in with yourself Do what you need to do Seek 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 answering the above questions when you are in a mentally well space, so when you feel down you have a toolbox to turn to for help.

The next speaker was Juhán Nikolaus Wuolab Wollberg, 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.

He sees various factors playing a role in these unusually high rates of suicide. The first possible cause he said, was the 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. Other 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.

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.

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. Mulvad showed 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 in her community.

In her personal experience she has found that reclaiming herself and her Inuk culture have helped on her mental health journey. 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, and through these things she begins to remember all the qualities that make her human.

During the final discussion, an audience member asked how people from outside these communities could act an ally. 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. 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 is a climate change professional focused on mitigating the effects of climate change, fighting for environmental justice, and writing. She holds a Bachelor's of Arts and Science degree in Environment and French from McGill University. Angelina has experience in the energy industry, environmental law, and the non-profit sector.

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