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A Conversation with Chris Yellowbird

June 21st is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada – a day which presents the opportunity to celebrate the heritage, culture and achievements of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples. It is important to remember the past, highlight Indigenous achievements today, and actively seek to create a brighter tomorrow as we share a vision of a united, equitable and just Canada.

Every community has unique mental health needs and challenges. Caregivers working in Indigenous communities are witnesses to an ongoing mental health crisis permeating entire generations. This is largely due to intergenerational trauma, the residual harm done from generation-to-generation as a result of cultural oppression, residential schools, and additional overarching impacts of colonization upon the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened things; a 2021 Statistics Canada profile stated 60 per cent of Indigenous participants reported worsening mental health over the course of the pandemic, with 47 per cent of Indigenous women “very” or “extremely” concerned by increased stress in their family.

Chris Yellowbird, an addictions counselor and educator working out of Alexander First Nation, says that navigating the fallout of this trauma is part of the job. The deep roots of intergenerational trauma in marginalized communities have resulted in the rise of substance abuse, depressive and anxiety disorders, incarceration, and suicidal ideation. CMHA’s Alberta Division sat down with Chris to discuss the importance of mental health promotion in Indigenous communities with first-hand perspectives.

Putting in the Work

Chris is a third-year lodge holder and pipe carrier working as an addiction counselor in Alexander First Nations. With eight years of personal sobriety and first-hand experience with friends and loved ones when it comes to prevalent issues on reserves in Alberta, Chris is both experienced and qualified. In the past year, his work has extended further into public speaking as well, including being invited to present at community workshops and a growing TikTok following for content offering cultural quick-hits and impartment of knowledge. But what does the intersection between mental health and addiction counseling look like for Indigenous communities?

“Almost 90% of my clients have been victims of some form of abuse. Lots of residential school fallout – people that have been in them, people with parents harmed by them – and that’s where intergenerational trauma comes in.”

The Past in the Present

The phrase “intergenerational trauma” carries a lot of weight in Chris’s work. By definition, intergenerational trauma is the residual ripple effects of traumatic experiences inflicted upon a culture and its people, passed down from generation to generation. For non-Indigenous people who aren’t informed and lack first-hand experience, the symptoms of this process can lead to harmful stereotypes and the misattributing of issues – so how does this manifest in communities it affects?

“Homelessness. Addiction. Unsupervised youth. Damaged family dynamics. When your parents grew up in residential schools, they never learn to show love and affection to their own kids. We’re in the generations breaking cycles now; we’re starting to connect the dots,” Chris says with a distinct hopefulness. “Crazyhorse said it would take seven generations for us to return to sitting back at that fire. My grandmother refused to speak on it. My father only spoke on it when asked. I personally want to talk about these things; I’m not afraid to open those wounds.”

Finding Identity

Knowing what intergenerational trauma is and how it affects communities is one thing – better understanding how to support and promote healing in communities affected by it is another. Chris says that a pillar of addressing these issues – especially in Indigenous youth – comes down to identity.

“These assimilation systems – the welfare system, residential schools, being denied our culture by the government for so many years – loss of identity is huge. Historically, there’s been a void for our people,” he says before a reflective pause. “As I became an adult, things started to shift; we’re getting our power back and starting to realize how powerful identity and community are.”

The Impacts of COVID-19

COVID-19 has had a harsh effect on mental health and wellness in Chris’s community.

“Everybody was in survivor mode. There were more overdoses, suicides went up, and a lot of our treatment resources were either shut down or half-capacity,” Chris recounts. “People are frustrated trying to get in. An Elder told me, though, that COVID and the mandates don’t bother him much because we’ve already been through this; not being able to see family, no socializing, told where to go and what to do, that’s what we went through. Two years? That’s nothing. We experienced it for a hundred.”

Where From Here?

According to Chris, these conversations have evolved in recent years. He says that a growing community of Indigenous allies has resulted in more mainstream conversations around the work that needs to be done. He sees a shift happening. But as far as tangible action?

“[Growing up with] boil water advisories, poor roads [that wash away in the rain], underfunding or misguided funding – it does something to your self-worth. You feel “less-than”. The treaties gave us so many promises, and they’ve not kept them.”

While exciting social progress is happening, tangible efforts to improve conditions must follow to aid the mental health crisis in Indigenous communities. For Chris and other caregivers and educators, this path forward involves reconnecting Indigenous youth with their cultural identity while navigating the fallout of intergenerational trauma. Working closely with those doing this invaluable work through an Indigenous lens can help forge a meaningful path towards improving mental health and wellness in these communities.

If you or someone you know needs mental health support, please call 211 (in Alberta) or your local distress line.

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