'Stand for my community': Young women respond to mental health crisis in northern Sask.

·4 min read

COVID-19 put a spotlight on a mental health crisis in northern Saskatchewan.

The pandemic has compounded the existing issue of limited resources, straining communities as they find new ways to face those challenges.

That's the context faced by six young women in their 20s and early 30s as they embark on the second year of regional advocacy group New North's Pathfinders program, designed to encourage wellness and mental health and to raise awareness about services connecting young northerners to their culture and community.

Heaven Smith of Pinehouse, Leigh-Ann Okemau of Southend, Shaylynn McAuley of La Ronge and Kaleigh Aramenko of Ile à la Crosse spoke to The StarPhoenix about the challenges facing the north, and the feeling of hope they get from their work.

Q: What sort of work do you? Why is that important?

Smith: I like to think of a pathfinder as being a role model, somebody these kids can look up to.

Aramenko: I believe that it's the women who are going to start healing the communities. It's the women that are bringing a lot of change.

Part of what we do is we look at the gaps in the programming. It can get a little bit difficult because we're looking at things like food security, and the access to mental health or the lack there of. I feel like this work has been much needed. It's a long time coming and I'm grateful that it's happening now.

It brings you back to your roots. I, for one, haven't been in my home community for a few years because of school. I was able to come back and I was welcomed back, and I was able to remember what actually matters.

Okemau: COVID-19 will always be around. Like it was so quiet for our community, we needed to find ways to do programming again.

Q: How has COVID-19 affected the work you do?

Aramenko: There's definitely more of a lens on mental health, trauma and addictions, even domestic violence. All of these issues that were swept under the rug before are suddenly front and centre.

We've been given the chance to look deeper. In our community, we've faced a lot of loss. There's going to be a light at the end of the tunnel, though, and I think this is just the beginning of that.

McAuley: The community has always had my back, so I'm going to have my community's back. There has been challenges, yes. We've had to pay more attention to things in our lives and our community. But it's been making people burn out, especially in their mental health, and in services that are supposed to be there.

Q: What sort of challenges have you faced?

Aramenko: COVID caused domestic violence rates to skyrocket, and that is true because people are forced to be at home with people who are abusers. But domestic violence or intimate partner violence was a pandemic before COVID. And these are issues that are just coming to the surface now.

There are so many people, women and children and youth, that don't have a voice right now. These are things they had to live with. The healing that needs to happen has to start at a personal level but also at a community level. We need more supports for people who experience these types of trauma. There needs to be more therapists and councillors.

I myself am a survivor of intimate partner violence and I can't even imagine how it would have been if I were still in that situation in COVID. I'm only one person and I survived. That's where my heart and my mind is a lot of the time, it's with those people who are going through that.

McAuley: A lot of our communities are going through grief. A lot of our people left us, not even natural deaths, but people are struggling with thoughts of suicide and abuse. People are getting neglected and people can't eat. There's so much that we could talk about. That's real life though, and that's been going on for years.

Q: What makes you optimistic?

Smith: Growing up, I was that kid that was pushed away, and here I am making a big change in my community — look what I can do as one person.

Aramenko: I'm very proud of my community's resiliency. There are so many different levels and ways people are resilient. I'm very proud to be from the north.

Okemau: If we stand together, we're strong together. Growing up, it was very hard for me. I was always bullied. I was never acknowledged. I said, 'You know what? When I grow up, I'm going to encourage every young person I come across.' That's all I wanted. It was to stand for my community.

Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix