It’s National Addictions Awareness Week in Canada – highlighting the challenges of substance abuse and mental health issues, and illuminating avenues toward help.
Dozens of students, educators, and support workers marched through Yellowknife’s downtown core on Monday afternoon with signs and megaphones (and masks) for the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre’s annual wellness walk.
Kathy Arden, community wellness manager at the Tree of Peace, told Cabin Radio the walk raises awareness of the addictions “that prevail here in our town of Yellowknife” and the support systems that are available.
The Tree of Peace is one such support system.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the centre’s services include addictions counselling and treatment referrals. Arden said the Tree of Peace helps more than 200 people per month.
Addictions and substance abuse were already a “tough road” before the pandemic, Arden said. Covid-19 has added barriers.
“In order to succeed, you really have to want to be in recovery,” she explained. “You have to change your lifestyle, and it’s difficult to change your lifestyle if you don’t have a positive environment around you to help support you through that.”
Arden said support services may not be enough if people don’t have a safe space to go outside treatment. She believes Yellowknife needs more transition houses with environments that offer continued support through recovery.
Breaking down stigma
Holding signs that read “You Matter” and “Mental Health,” Monday’s marchers chanted words of encouragement and cheered as passing cars honked.
School and youth groups involved in Monday’s walk included the MAGMA (Magnanimous Advocates Generating Mental Health Awareness) group from Sir John Franklin High School, Students Against Drinking and Driving from St Pat’s, and youth from the Foster Family Coalition’s GLOW program.
Jimena Maule and Riley Hans are Grade 10 students at Sir John Franklin and members of the school’s MAGMA group.
Passionate about mental health, they joined the club to help make a difference for fellow students.
“Lately, a lot of people have been struggling with mental health, especially because now it’s getting darker early and seasonal depression is really starting to come out for a lot of our friends,” Maule said.
Hans added: “There’s the stress of school, too. And Covid hit, so that’s really stressful as well.”
Last month, the club had peers design posters with words of encouragement to display at the school and gave away “mental health gift baskets” as prizes.
At a Smash the Stigma event, students would pay to hit pumpkins that had stigmatized words – such as “crazy” or “psycho” – carved onto them.
“This huge one, it was frozen, so it was really hard to smash,” Hans laughed. “Everyone was with a baseball bat, just smashing at it.”
The club’s main message? You are not alone.
“Everyone goes through hard times and you might think it’s never gonna get better, but it does,” Hans said. “Think positive.”
Strength and wellness
The wellness walk is not the only event being organized by the Tree of Peace this week.
On Thursday, the centre’s youth advisory committee will hold a wellness event with presentations about vaping, which the committee has identified as a big issue for NWT youth. An Elder will facilitate a talking circle.
Elycia Monaghan is a youth senate board member at the centre. She said the events are about “building community, seeing a concrete way of beating addictions,” and changing the narrative around Indigenous wellness.
“When we talk about Indigenous people and addictions, it’s always been from a very deficits-focused approach,” she said. “I think now we’re looking at it more as building strength in our community.
“I think it’s important to see the next generation healing from our trauma and colonialism and just doing it for the generations to come.”
Christina Moore, Indigenous youth worker at the Tree of Peace, agreed.
Moore said she tries to approach her work from a “strength-based” perspective, encouraging youth to make healthy choices and connect to their community rather than talking down to them or treating them as “victims.”
Reclaiming culture can be a powerful way of doing this.
“At the Tree of Peace, we have the Youth Eagle program,” Moore said. “We have programs for youth to get involved in things like jigging, on-the-land programs, our youth advisory committee, beading, sewing – just getting in touch with culture and empowering youth through their culture.”
“Go and talk, tell your story,” Arden said. “It’s nothing to be afraid of or embarrassed about. That’s life and that’s the way things are, so we’re here to help you.”
Meanwhile, Monaghan offered simple but powerful advice: “Take it day by day and keep strong. Know that we are resilient people and that we’re going to overcome anything, all of these challenges we’ve had.”