‘You’re a gift to this world’: How to support Indigenous kids’ mental health

TVO.org speaks with Nicole Ineese-Nash about Building Our Bundle — an online program that combines mental-health skills with Indigenous cultural teachings
By Shelby Lisk - Published on May 07, 2021
Nicole Ineese-Nash (centre) poses with youth from Nibinamik First Nation in front of a mural they created with Anishinaabe artist Nyle Miigizi Johnston. (Courtesy of Nicole Ineese-Nash)]

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In the summer of 2017, Nibinamik First Nation endured the loss of several youth to suicide. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only community in northern Ontario facing this crisis. In July 2017, Maclean’s reported that there had been 18 suicides in Nishnawbe Aski Territory between January and July.

“The young people were really mobilizing to support one another in the context of youth suicides,” says Nicole Ineese-Nash, who co-founded the non-profit Finding Our Power Together along with the Nibinamik Youth Council. “They were checking up on each other and really trying to share with one another their solidarity and messages of hope.”

At the time, Ineese-Nash, who is currently pursuing a PhD in social-justice education and Indigenous health at the University of Toronto, was working on a project for her master’s with Nibinamik First Nation. Ineese-Nash and the Nibinamik Youth Council worked to bring together Indigenous youth to talk candidly about how suicide has affected their lives.

In 2018, they held an event at Ryerson University, called Finding Our Power Together, where they shared a film created by the Nibinamik Youth Council. In February 2020, Ineese-Nash visited Nibinamik again to ask where the youth would like the project to go next. “Take the idea and build it,” was their answer, she says. “If it can support youth across the country, that’s what we want to do.”

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In summer 2020, Ineese-Nash and her team launched Building Our Bundle, a six-week online program that combines mental-health skills with Indigenous cultural teachings and offers both group and one-on-one sessions with mentors. Since the program began, more than 80 youth from across Canada have participated. The team has also supported youth workers from Brunswick House First Nation, Nibinamik First Nation, and Cape Crocker in running the program directly in their own communities.

TVO.org spoke with Nicole Ineese-Nash about the importance of being connected to cultural identity, the gaps that exist in supporting Indigenous youth mental health, and ways that we can build our bundle.

TVO.org: Can you tell me a bit about the approach for the Building Our Bundle program? How do you incorporate both Western techniques, such as Dialectical Behavioural Therapy and Indigenous cultural values and teachings?

woman holding sign reading "I stand in solidarity with Indigenous youth and communities"
Nicole Ineese-Nash, co-founder and director
of Finding Our Power Together.
(Courtesy of Nicole Ineese-Nash)]

Nicole Ineese-Nash: We really wanted to have skills-based teaching, but also focus on cultural content, so we did this research project and came up with a way that we could integrate these different approaches — but starting from the sense of Indigenous values first and then using the Western tools. I think most other [programs for] Indigenous people are the reverse: they start with a Western framework and then add some, like, medicine wheels and call it Indigenized. We’re trying to start from an Indigenous value system and Indigenous belief system and then take some tools from the Western perspective, because they can be useful, especially if we can tie them back to cultural teachings.

When we’re thinking about the high suicide rate in First Nation communities, to me that really represents a disconnection from our ourselves and our ancestries, because we don’t feel connected to life — and that’s when we fall out of life. And, so, if we can connect young people to who they are, their ancestries or cultures, we think that there will be less likelihood of suicides.

TVO.org: Why do you think it’s important, in terms of mental health, for Indigenous youth to have that connection to their culture and a strong sense of self? How have you seen that play out?

Ineese-Nash: I think a lot of our mental-health challenges — not only for Indigenous people but for all people — come from when we experience the world through an invalidating environment. What I mean by that is that when the environment you’re in is constantly telling you that you don’t belong, that you aren’t worthy, that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you, you start to internalize those messages.

I think a lot of Indigenous young people, they’re getting those messages all the time from other people, but also through the institutions that they interact with, the way that we teach in schools, the way that people are portrayed on TV, the way that there are certain things of value in society, such as capitalism — these are all messages getting relayed all the time that invalidate Indigenous perspectives.

In terms of healing, I’ve come to a point in my own life that I’ve really investigated who I am, what I believe; I’ve been privileged to receive teachings that were really meaningful to me and my own journey.. I can’t pinpoint a specific teaching that’s changed my world view, but I think it’s just about when you understand where you come from, you’re rooted to something, so even when something bad happens, you have roots that [can help you] weather that storm.

a binder and a phone on the grass
Materials from the first Building Our Bundle session in Nibinamik First Nation. (Courtesy of Nicole Ineese-Nash)

TVO.org: Why was it important to have both group sessions and one-on-one mentorship as a part of Building Our Bundle? How do you think they complement each other?

Ineese-Nash: I think that really relates to our cultural ways of teaching. From what I’ve been able to learn from Elders, oftentimes you’ll hear the same teaching over and over in your life, and it’s only when you’re ready to pick up the teaching that it will it have an impact for you. How that relates to Building Our Bundle is that we’re going to hear teachings in different ways and in different packages from different people, and it might not resonate the first time, but maybe it’ll resonate the second time or the third time, or maybe you’ll be at the place where you’re ready to hear that teaching when it comes from a peer rather than a professional.

TVO.org: What do you think needs to happen, on a broad scale, to change the circumstances for Indigenous youth and to prevent suicide?

Ineese-Nash: A lot of remote communities have these parachute teams that come in, that are largely non-Indigenous practitioners, who don’t stay long enough to actually develop meaningful relationships with people. The mindset that we have, when it comes to mental health, is really about crisis. We wait until someone’s in crisis in order to intervene, and by that point, the supports that are available are just inadequate. So either you leave your community in order to get access to support, or you stay in your community and don’t get the support.

For us, we really see that relationships are key to supporting well-being. You need to be able to trust someone, you need to be able to relate to them, you need to actually respect what they have to say, and they need to have some context about your lived reality in order for them to be effective. And I think that just doesn’t happen in the model we currently have where it’s like, ‘You’re in crisis, so you’re going to get whatever you get.’

A film by the Nibinamik Youth Council, created in 2018 in response to the loss of several youth from their community to suicide.

TVO.org: Do you have a vision for where you’d like to see the program go?

Ineese-Nash: Our dream is to have a land-based place where we are able to bring people together and share these teachings, to do ceremony and to be together and hug each other and cook together and learn together and where we can really just be together. The facilitator in our program that is never acknowledged is land, right? Land is also so important to the ways that we are able to heal and build resurgent Indigenous futures. What we hope is that, eventually, we’ll be able to have a land-based space where we can [not only] do therapeutic interventions but where we can also plan for, like, taking over the world, really. I want to support Indigenous youth to feel like they can do anything.

TVO.org: Do you have a message of hope for Indigenous youth who are reading this and may be struggling because of the pandemic or struggling to fit into a world that doesn’t appreciate them for who they are?

Ineese-Nash: I can share something that I’ve heard from teachings that I think has really shifted my own self-confidence in times that I’m feeling hopeless. Well, two things: one is that Creator never gives you something you can’t handle, and second is that you’re a gift to this world, and you were made with intention.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

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