Teaching Indigenous youth to cope with anxiety
Since she was young, Breland Athies always felt disconnected from her Métis culture.
Growing up in a Christian household, she says there was a lot of intergenerational trauma passed down from her family, which surfaced as mental health and addiction challenges.
She remembered hearing her friends talk about their family crests and realized she didn’t know where she came from. Athies says as she grew up, she struggled with anxiety and depression in high school and university, in part because she didn’t know much about her background.
For Athies, now 27, her anxiety was hard to talk about. “If you have a diagnosis of something, you’re seen as ‘crazy.’ I was lucky, I had groups to go to and talk about these things. It’s a way to normalize those feelings and acknowledge it’s a shared experience for teens and humans in general. That made me feel better — growing up and realizing (anxiety) is a human experience.”
Since then, Athies has reconnected to her Métis culture, which has provided her an immense sense of belonging and helped reduce her anxiety.
Learning to cope with anxiety is a strategy she hoped to pass along to others as a program facilitator with the YMCA’s Teen Mind Medicine program. The Teen Mind Medicine pilot project, with $300,000 in funding from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, supports Indigenous teens ages 13 to 19 who are experiencing stress, worry and mild to moderate anxiety.
As part of the program, trained community members such as Athies teach teens strategies and practical tools to cope with anxiety and provide a safe space for young people to connect with one another and share experiences.
The YMCA worked in partnership with 13 Indigenous community partners to deliver the Teen Mind Medicine program to roughly 100 teens around the province in fall 2019.
Athies helped facilitate the program in Trail, in partnership with the Circle of Indigenous Nations Society, which brought together teens from two local high schools once a week. Not only did the program teach students strategies to cope with anxiety, it included a cultural component.
Each session started with a blessing and smudge from an Elder, drumming a traditional song and a check in with a talking stick to see how everyone was feeling that day. Common themes that emerged were the impacts of colonization, the disconnect many teens felt from their culture and how it impacted their anxiety.
Athies says after talking about their issues, she saw a difference in the 15 participants. Students were nervous in the beginning. They were unsure of what to expect, but by the end of the six-week program, many were grateful to learn how to put a name to their emotions and reconnect to their Indigenous cultures.
“Anxiety is such a big issue for teens these days, especially in the age of technology where everyone is looking at their screens,” Athies says. “This was a good chance to increase socialization and notice that anxiety is normal. It was really important for those kids to take time out of their day to check in with their emotions in a group so that they’re not holding it in.”
For more information about programs offered at the YMCA to deal with anxiety, visit: https://gv.ymca.ca/Programs/Health-Management/Teen-Mindfulness-Group