‘People want to live:’ Northern youth connect at mental health summit

Young people from all three territories share stories, learn skills at Northern Jack Summit

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Paige Savard grappled with mental health issues during her first year at university. She felt alone, with no one to turn to for help.

After overcoming her own struggles, Savard wanted to give hope to other young people facing the same challenges.

She joined Jack.org, a charity aimed at ending enduring stigmas and improving accessibility to mental health services by educating and empowering Canadian youth through engagement.

On Saturday, Savard was one of 50 young people from across the North – the NWT, Yukon and Nunavut – who gathered in Yellowknife for the second annual Northern Jack Summit.

“It’s really about empowering young people to take a stand and be able to make change and request a change in their communities,” said 24-year-old Savard, who, as a national network rep and Whitehorse chapter lead, emceed the event at the Chateau Nova Hotel.

“It also makes me feel less alone in the struggles I may face or some of the struggles my community may be facing as well,” added Savard.

Brendan Burke/NNSL photo.
Paige Savard, a Jack.org national network representative and Whitehorse chapter lead, says it’s important to support culturally relevant mental health services in the North. “(There’s a focus) on Western medication which is great for some people but not great for everyone.”

Jack.org is named after Jack Windeler. Like Savard, Jack battled mental health issues during his first year at university.

Unable to get the help he needed, Jack took his own life.

From the tragedy, Jack.org was born. Jack’s parents, Eric Windeler and Sandra Hanington, formed a memorial fund in his name in 2010. From its early days a small outreach initiative with two full-time staff members, Jack.org has grown to be a national charity that supports thousands of young leaders in every province in territory.

The summit, which featured two keynote speakers, focused on the unique challenges faced by youth in the North when it comes to mental health, including a lack of access to resources and the need to offer more culturally relevant services.

Beading and drumming workshops were offered to attendees, aged 15 to 25, at the summit Saturday.

Savard said it’s important to for mental health services and professionals to provide cultural connections for youth in the North — a diverse place where southern practices are far too often the default course of action.

“There’s not a whole lot of culturally relevant resources available currently. Lots of it is kind of focused on Western medication which is great for some people but not great for everyone,” she said.

“So there’s a need to recognize the importance of Indigenous culture in the North, to recognize that culture can help people and their mental health.”

Suicide among Indigenous youth is five to six times higher than non-Indigenous youth, according to statistics from Jack.org.

Savard said the lack of mental health services in the North is especially pronounced in the communities. For many young people, she said it’s not as simple as simply going to a mental health clinic or seeing a counsellor — the services often aren’t there.

High turnover rates for professionals in communities also mean youth can lose connections with counsellors just as their beginning to form them. It’s these kinds of barriers Jack.Org is trying to overturn, said Savard.

‘People want to live’

Sopé Owoaje is a Jack network rep from Nunavut.

She lost two friends to suicide over the year and a half.

“They were struggling and unfortunately weren’t able to get the help they needed at that time,” said Owoaje.

“Living in the North, I feel like no one really hears our voices. People down south sometimes don’t even know where Nunavut is. But we’re here,” she said.

Brendan Burke/NNSL photo.
Nunavut’s Sopé Owoaje has lost two close friends to suicide in the past year-and-a-half. She says acknowledging you’re struggling is the first step in getting help. “Just reach out.”

By making connections, gaining skills and sharing stories at the summit, Owoaje said she and other young people are learning the tools needed to bring positive change to their own communities.

Owoaje said progress is being made. While suicide is still a pressing problem back home, rates among youth have dropped in recent years.

“People want to live. They’re (becoming) able to seek the help they need,” said Owoaje.
Twenty-one-year-old Maurissa Antle of Yellowknife attended Saturday’s summit.

Antle, who’s finishing her social work degree, sees long wait times in Yellowknife and the NWT as one of the biggest barriers to accessibility for mental health services.

“There’s a six month wait time just to see a counsellor and even then you’re only seeing one once a month,” she said.

Brendan Burke/NNSL photo.
Twenty-one-year-old Maurissa Antle of Yellowknife is finishing her degree in social work. She says long wait times for counsellors is one of the biggest hurdles that needs to be cleared when it comes to accessibility for mental health services in the NWT.

Part of Jack.org`s mission is to push policy makers to break through those barriers.
Savard, Owoaje and Antle all echoed the same advice for young people who may be struggling: reach out to someone.

“In my experience, the worst part is feeling alone like there’s no one looking out for you,” said Savard.

“But I guarantee there are.”

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