Covid-19 restrictions are tough on most people’s mental health. For residential school survivors and those with forms of post-traumatic stress disorder, the impact can be even harder.
Raymond Pidzamecky is a therapist who works in Indigenous communities across the NWT. He lives in Ontario and travels a few times a year to see his clients, all of whom either survived residential school or experienced intergenerational trauma.
Pidzamecky cannot currently enter the NWT as the territory enforces strict border controls related to the pandemic. He has to make do with phone calls to those he supports – which he said is working well enough for the time being, but he misses being physically present.
He is only supporting about half of his clients at the moment. Initially, many told him they would simply wait for him to come back.
“I don’t think any of them anticipated how long this could go, or how serious it was,” Pidzamecky said.
As the Covid-19 crisis drags on, more and more of Pidzamecky’s clients are reaching back out for support.
He wants to be able to create a safe space for them, but that is hard to accomplish over the phone. Pidzamecky is worried the prolonged separation will erode the trust and progress he and his clients have worked so hard to build.
“I can’t predict what the outcomes are going to be, but I’m pretty sure there will be some degree of regression,” he said. “You can’t just jump into things and pick up where you left off.”
The land is ‘a saving grace’
The pandemic has ushered the importance of mental health into the national spotlight this year.
On April 27, results of an online survey carried out by the Angus Reid Institute – an independent polling company – suggested half of Canadians report a “worsening in their mental health.”
The following Sunday, the federal government announced additional funding of nearly $241 million for online health services, including mental health supports. The goal is to make accessing those services easier.
“It’s wonderful,” said Jean Erasmus, co-founder of Dene Wellness Warriors in Yellowknife.
Erasmus has been working with residential school survivors in Dene communities across the NWT for six years. While she won’t benefit from the funding as a private practitioner, she’s happy to see more resources for those who need help.
Erasmus says she is so far noticing that more introverted clients are happy for more time alone, while others face feelings of loneliness and fear.
Many of her clients have had more time to go out on the land. She says the act of trapping, fishing, and hunting geese has been a saving grace for some.
‘My clients are fighters’
Roslind Minault, who counsels residential school survivors in Yellowknife, says uncertainty – and consequent anxiety – are big stumbling blocks for anyone during the pandemic.
The effects of that anxiety, however, can be magnified in people with pre-existing mental health conditions like forms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Minault worries that some of her clients might, without proper support, lapse back into drug and alcohol abuse.
“[It’s a] struggle of keeping forward, and keeping positive, and keeping our systems all moving so that we don’t pull back,” she said.
“You have to keep them moving forward all the time. And it’s a struggle right now.”
Erasmus is encouraged that some of her clients are finding ways to be resourceful while dealing with trauma in difficult times.
“People are resilient,” she said. “They survived before these services were in place. They’re going to survive during this crisis, and they’re going to bounce back after.”
Erasmus, who is Dene and Cree and is originally from Fort Chipewyan, was in the residential school system for six years. That has shaped the way she approaches her clients, all of whom are dealing with their own trauma from the same experience.
Her people were here long before Covid-19, she said. The current situation might not be an easy one, but it will take much more to knock the fight out of them.
“I think resilience [is] the ability to keep moving forward even when things seem so grim,” she said.
“The hardships that we’ve endured got us to where we’re at right now.
“I know my clients, and they are fighters.”