Mental health program for northern Sask. girls awarded multi-year funding

Interconnectedness is the name of the game for participants in Heart Linked Community Services Co-operative’s programs.

The organization supports young girls in northern Saskatchewan, offering mental health-focused education and retreats.

“Heart Linked was founded … in response to some very tragic events going on up north,” Co-founder Cathy Edwards said. “There were cases of suicide clusters among young Indigenous girls. And there was simply a group of women — mostly moms — who got together and said, ‘what can we do?’

“And instead of waiting for government interventions or resources to move into those remote communities, we decided to plan a retreat and bring some of these girls who were really suffering to Saskatoon, to experience joy and belonging and attend workshops on building self-esteem.”

The organization has been getting recognition for its ambitious goals and positive impacts since 2017, when it launched its first retreat.

“It’s very collaborative,” Edwards said. “We work with our partner communities to address any specific trauma or triggers within the community, and the leaders from the community are very engaged in helping craft the process. "

She added that the group's focus is "on asset-building, rather than crisis intervention. By working with youth … we are hoping to give them some tools in their toolbox to avoid crises and mental health challenges later on in life.”

Conexus Credit Union committed this year to giving Heart Linked $15,000 annually for three years. The funds will help support the organization’s work in Lac La Ronge, Pinehouse, Cole Bay, Jan’s Bay and Green Lake.

“Too often, we hear stories of youth here in our province who have lost their battle with mental health,” said Dan Kirby, Conexus regional vice president of retail sales. “In many cases, these young people suffered without the knowledge and tools necessary to combat these struggles.

“We’re proud to be partnering with Heart Linked, who are focused on providing these resources to young women living in some of Saskatchewan’s most remote and vulnerable communities.”

Because Heart Linked works on building programs and relationships within each community, Edwards says they have always had a mandate to stay in a community as long as they sees value in the program.

“When we start working with a community, we stay,” she said.

The grant allows Heart Linked to consider branching out into other communities, or offering retreats to older youth — currently, the program is limited to girls in sixth grade.

“We’d like to stay connected to these girls as they grow up,” Edwards said.

For some participants, the lessons learned at Heart Link’s retreats can last a lifetime.

Sonal Kavia, Heart Link’s director of education, recalls an afternoon when northern students came for a retreat at the University of Saskatchewan.

“It was just a quiet moment walking down the hallway with one of the girls, and she said ‘this is the best day ever,’" Kavia said. “And I asked her why. And she said this was the first time she’d had a chance to come to Saskatoon, and she felt like she couldn’t believe this was for her.

“So, the way we’re showing up, that’s being felt.”

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566), Saskatoon Mobile Crisis (306-933-6200), Prince Albert Mobile Crisis Unit (306-764-1011), Regina Mobile Crisis Services (306-525-5333) or the Hope for Wellness Help Line, which provides culturally competent crisis intervention counselling support for Indigenous peoples (1-855-242-3310).

Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix