The future of the North will be determined by the choices, aspirations, and priorities of its youth. The Youth Perspectives Series is a publishing platform for students to voice their opinions, share their experiences, and influence the debate about their homeland. The forum features articles, videos, illustrations, poems, and multimedia projects created by youth living in the Arctic on the issues that matter to them most. Hosted by The Arctic Institute (TAI), Youth Perspectives is produced in partnership with Students on Ice, Arctic Youth Ambassadors, and the Arctic Adaptation Exchange. The installment below is the second of many throughout 2016 that will be featured on the TAI’s forthcoming new website.
If you are a student living in the Arctic and are interested in publishing with us, or if your organization would like to partner with or sponsor Youth Perspectives, please contact our Managing Director at email@example.com.
After I was sexually assaulted in Nunavut, a mental health worker grabbed a textbook off her shelf, opened it, and began reading me questions. Before I walked out, I told her I could read a list myself on the internet — before remembering I didn’t have internet because of the outrageous price. All I can think is: am I still in Canada?
I watched adults sincerely congratulate a fourteen-year-old girl on her pregnancy. Am I still in Canada?
I invited pre-teen girls over but asked if they could go home for dinner and come back after. I needed alone time. They said they couldn’t. When asked why, they said nonchalantly, “There is no food at home.” Am I still in Canada?
My nineteen-year-old friend, a mother of two, told me she was proud of me for not having children yet. I was only eighteen. Am I still in Canada?
I went to the Emergency Room for a prescription in the Yukon as I, like many Yukoners, have no access to a family doctor. I was in no pain or urgent need. A young, aboriginal woman behind the curtain next to me was having an extreme anxiety attack, and soon told me she was on her sixth day without alcohol after over eight years of drinking. I helped her get water and cold paper towels because no one else was. The nurse tells her dismissively that she is next to see the doctor. She was afraid she would die. I was afraid she would die. The doctor comes into the room and sees me before her. Am I still in Canada?
What do all these tragedies have in common? Mental health.
Mental health is defined as the state of being emotionally and psychologically empowered to pursue your best vision of yourself. Mental health problems are more prevalent in the north due to isolation, darkness, lack of anonymity, and limited educational or employment opportunities. Northern communities have been impacted by the traumas inflicted by residential schools, which were often the sites of physical and sexual abuse, and the systematic injustices inherent within colonization. The cycle continues because of a lack of mental health care and a lack of acknowledgement that the current healthcare system has failed in the north.
Boys grow up with the imported cultural norm of showing no emotions for fear of being seen as less of a man. Instead of talking about feelings and trauma, it is too often expressed as violence towards others in their communities, especially against girls and women. In some remote northern communities, the easiest or often only way to access mental health care would be to go to a southern prison. This has to change.
In addition to northern women being more likely to experience violence than their southern counterparts, we live in a cultural climate that tells northern women they are not good enough. In the Nunavut town where I lived, expensive items were often locked up to prevent shoplifting, but only the blonde hair dyes were locked up, as if dark hair is so undesirable they don’t even see why it would be stolen. Southern girls have self esteem issues as well, but can easily match skin or hair color to at least one supermodel. In comparison, try and find even one aboriginal-looking woman in a fashion magazine.
There is no one more fearless, spirited, and sure of themselves than northern children, and yet in a few years they transform into copper-haired shells of themselves. They become so acutely aware, as they consume southern media, that they are not physically or mentally valued by a majority culture that lacks diversity and is blinded by white privilege.
Showing signs of mental distress in an unhealthy society is a healthy reaction — but then what? There is a chicken-and-egg like difficulty of solving problems in the north. What comes first? Is it dropping out of school or teenage pregnancy? Is it addiction or violence? Is it lack of housing or lack of employment? Is it trauma or bad choices? There are no easy fixes, but what I am sure of is that improved mental health care in the north would have positive effects on every seemingly insurmountable issue that we deal with.
The first step is getting mental health care out of the hands of the mainstream medical system, or at the very least inspiring a revolution similar to Nordic countries. There, patients have an entire multidisciplinary team including social workers and nurses, whose treatment plans are valued equally with the psychiatrist’s recommendations. Medications and inpatient admissions are used as last resort treatments in favour of lifestyle changes and community supports.
Whitehorse recently had the privilege of hosting Robert Whitaker, a journalist shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and an institutional corruption researcher at Harvard. His books and presentations confirm the bad science behind psychiatry, which even some psychiatrists have slowly started to admit. The long-term outcomes for people who take psychiatric drugs are shockingly negative compared with those who are allowed time and counselling to overcome their difficulties. People need to be empowered and treated as people, not as an accumulation of symptoms a magical pill can ‘fix’.
Many of my friends tell me they cannot access any help in the north. There are many reasons for this. First, the north has a high turnover rate for medical personnel. I suspect because so many northerners are suffering from mental health problems entire communities become mentally ill. It is difficult to live somewhere like that, even as a professional health worker. Furthermore, there are confidentiality issues unique to the north. There are no private offices in the smaller towns, although for most places access to any counsellor as long as they do not read out of a “how to” book would be a huge improvement.
Even accessing existing southern services, like Kid’s Help Phone, has issues. If you call needing help with a mental health crisis, they will tell you to go to the hospital or dial 911. You will tell them you have neither of those things. Shocked, they’ll ask what do you have? A health center, but it isn’t open now and my aunt works there. Go to a different health center then. Not including houses, there are five buildings in my town, one being the health center. Can you get a ride to the next town? The ‘next’ town is hours away by airplane and costs thousands of dollars. You will be able to hear them shaking their heads, with no idea how to help you. We need services by people who are trained and live in the realities of life in the north.
The Yukon recently got a distress line. But, Yukoners should be sure to schedule their crises between 7 pm and midnight, as those are the only hours this volunteer line operates. For a region with more issues than the South, this is not acceptable. Yukon is one of only two jurisdictions in Canada without an official mental health strategy. We should have more mental health care, not less.
I do not know the end of the story for the woman in the ER with me, but I do know that if she was in an emergency room in Edmonton, she would have been seen by a social worker within twenty minutes. They noticed that people in a crisis would have their mental state further deteriorate during long ER waits. Studies have shown that by having early intervention and someone to talk to, the rates of people needing to be admitted to the psych ward or even see a doctor decreases. This should be adopted everywhere. Any medical employee can dial a phone and could have instant access to a trained crisis professional no matter how remote the community, and at a fraction of the cost we currently pay doctors and nurses who are not specially trained for intervention.
The bottom line of mental health care is people helping people. There is no one traditionally better at that than northerners. Someone gets hurt in an accident, we fundraise. Someone is tragically murdered, the whole community comes together. Yet when someone is suffering from mental illness, we look the other way.
People underestimate the power community groups and peer support groups can have. Whitehorse’s Kwanlun Dun First Nation hosted “Strength Within Circle” this past summer, a weekend-long healing camp designed for all youth from northern communities who are dealing with staggering numbers of suicides or accidental deaths. Attendance was free. We need to keep doing this in the north.
We need to keep helping each other because no government seem interested in acting beyond their talking points. We need to demand better than the current broken system that has so obviously failed, to look instead to our compassion, culture, humanity, and tolerance. Above all, we need to improve the access to and the quality of mental health care so northerners know we are still in Canada.
Bali Epoch is a public speaker and writer, currently in the process of finishing her memoir. Promoting empowered mental health care and giving people facing mental health challenges a voice are her passions. She lives in the Yukon with her boyfriend. Bali is a proud feminist and has more than the required amount of cats to back it up. She is able to be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.