Ulukhaktok swaps curling rink for youth culture, mental health

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Ulukhaktok's curling rink has become a space for older youth to practice their Inuvialuit culture and connect to mental health resources in a non-clinical setting.

The space will host activities like sewing and other traditional skills as well as sharing circles. Meghan Etter, manager of counselling services for the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, said a new floor had been laid down and furniture installed.

"It's just a really, really big space where there's going to be different programs run," said Etter. "Whether it's Arctic sports – archery has been talked about – or even just sharing circles, hosting events, sewing circles, things like that."

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The space emerged through community discussions as part of a Canada-wide youth mental health project named Access Open Minds. Ulukhaktok is one of 14 project sites across the country and the only site in the three territories.

People can start talking about mental health issues and knowing that it's a normal process of life. It's OK to talk about it.

Meghan Etter, INUVIALUIT REGIONAL CORPORATION

Together with the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation and Ulukhaktok Community Corporation, Access Open Minds examined the community's gaps in service as perceived by younger residents.

While the community already has a youth centre, the project team found residents aged 18 and older were less likely to use this space, and take part in support services or cultural activities, compared to younger youth.

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Those older youth told researchers they wanted more opportunities to connect to their culture - including advanced Inuinnaqtun lessons, sewing and beading classes, and longer on-the-land camps – according to a report in the journal Early Intervention in Psychiatry.

The small, tight-knit nature of the community made it difficult to maintain privacy when accessing mental health services, researchers heard. "There is also some hesitation expressed by youth in Ulukhaktok to share their mental health concerns, such as suicidal thoughts, with their own families," the report stated.

Arctic sports at Ulukhaktok's new youth space. IRC photo

Engaging family members and caregivers was also a challenge. Researchers found a "marked generational divide between youth and Elders, but also a desire for increased intergenerational connectivity in the community."

The idea behind the space, Etter said, is to be a place where young people can both practise their culture and find support when going through mental health challenges.

"We're looking at hosting some sharing circles for families who have been affected by mental health, so that they can start to connect, and talk, and provide a bit of a support to one another," she said. "People can start talking about mental health issues and knowing that it's a normal process of life. It's OK to talk about it."

In Ulukhaktok, a counsellor in the community health centre provides counselling services. The community doesn't have psychiatric services. Young people experiencing crises like psychosis, drug addiction, or suicide attempts must head south to receive help.

Etter hopes sharing circles, sometimes called healing circles, will bring the conversation around mental health out of the clinical setting.

"Right now, the way the system is structured in a lot of the small communities, the health centre is the go-to for everything – and we're trying to change that," she said.

"It's really about people getting together to share their story and having supportive ears and supportive listeners ... connecting the youth to the services through building relationships and getting to know them."

Two residents – one Elder and one community member, who is a support person in the school and teacher of traditional ways – have been working with youth as part of the Access Open Minds project. The community's counsellor will work with Access staff in the youth space.

These two community workers will be trained to identify young people facing mental health or addictions issues, provide local support, and provide aftercare if youth are sent south for interventions.

"Sometimes a youth doesn't need a counsellor, they just need someone to talk to who understands them," Etter said of their role.

The new youth space in Ulukhaktok. IRC photo

The grand opening of the youth space took place on Thursday with a community feast featuring drummers, dancers, and Arctic sports demonstrations.

While funding from Access Open Minds runs out in September 2020, Etter told Cabin Radio the change to a youth space is considered permanent and the facility will be shared with the hamlet's recreation staff. Work is taking place to figure out how services can be delivered beyond 2020.

"The space will remain," she said. "In terms of the sustainability of program delivery from the staff themselves, that's something we're working on – site sustainability."

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